Breakthrough in energy harvesting could power life on Mars

Mar 18, 2015

By Phys.org

Martian colonists could use an innovative new technique to harvest energy from carbon dioxide thanks to research pioneered at Northumbria University, Newcastle.

The technique, which has been proven for the first time by researchers at Northumbria, has been published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications.

The research proposes a new kind of engine for producing energy based on the Leidenfrost effect – a phenomenon which happens when a liquid comes into near contact with a surface much hotter than its boiling point. This effect is commonly seen in the way water appears to skitter across the surface of a hot pan, but it also applies to solid carbon dioxide, commonly known as dry ice. Blocks of dry ice are able to levitate above hot surfaces protected by a barrier of evaporated gas vapour. Northumbria’s research proposes using the vapour created by this effect to power an engine. This is the first time the Leidenfrost effect has been adapted as a way of harvesting energy.

The technique has exciting implications for working in extreme and alien environments, such as , where it could be used to make long-term exploration and colonisation sustainable by using naturally occurring solid as a resource rather than a waste product. If this could be realised, then future missions to Mars, such as those in the news recently, may not need to be ‘one-way’ after all.


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22 comments on “Breakthrough in energy harvesting could power life on Mars

  • I have only read first sentence when I decided to wright my comment. It says:

    Martian colonists could use an innovative new technique to harvest
    energy from carbon dioxide…

    Martian colonist. What Martian colonists? I am actually interesting why do they (research team) think about this stuff in the first place! Why? Do they have a plan for Earth destruction so Earthen should be prepared?



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  • I call this “argumentum ad oncologum” (excuse the latin/greek conflation)

    Every time new science is discovered there is a backlash because the discovery has not adhered to popular chronological expectations, with effective cancer treatment usually at the front.

    Example of use: “never mind why my cornflakes go soggy, when are you going to invent a cure for cancer?”

    I am actually interesting

    yes, i agree

    why do they (research team) think about this stuff in the first place! Why?

    Because no one has thought to explain to them what they can use their brains for.

    Use your democratic right to refuse grant applications submitted to you and such atrocities may be avoided in future

    hope that explains everything

    The cat



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  • I did not mean why do they think about applications of technologies, but on this assumption “Martian colonists”. I was wondering why is there a mentioning of some “Martian colonies” at all. Sorry if I failed to explain.



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  • From what I have understood, it is not about conservation but of harvesting. Fossil fuels not being available on Mars. There also seems to be a problem of stopping the craft once it has reached its destination and carrying the fuel is expensive so the thrust produced would be a good breaking system. That’s my understanding any way.



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  • But harvesting from where. You get the effect when you produce a significant temperature differential, which in turn generates some sort of vapor cushion. To me it looks like to achieve that, you would have to put in more energy in than you could get out.

    i.e. you’re not gonna get more energy out of the steam harvested from a boiling kettle than from the energy it took to boil the water in the first place. AFAIK, there is no energy ‘stored’ in dry ice, that is ready to be released when the conditions are right, or is there 🙂



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  • I was thinking, concentrated star light for heat and the cold of space for the ice??? Not that I know if that’s what will work??? 🙂



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  • 8
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    Ok I’m no physicist but I guess I’ll go out on a limb here and risk making a fool of myself (again) by attempting an explanation…

    My guess is that it’s about boiling point differential. Water boils at 100 deg. C so the hot plate needs to be heated at a temperature significantly higher than 100 to obtain the Liedenfrost effect.

    But we’re talking about dry ice here and CO2 sublimes at -78.5 deg C (thank you O useless Wikipedia). So I’m thinking that a “hot plate” at room temperature (20 deg C) would offer a nearly 100 degrees differential with dry ice. So you wouldn’t have to heat the plate at all.

    Since no heat energy is being extracted from this process, steam pressure is the only usable source of energy I can see. So I’m assuming that the idea is to use the pressure of the CO2 steam that is produced to actuate some kind of impeller which would in turn be coupled to an electrical generator.



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  • I can live with that but object to Wiki being useless. Science facts are science facts. I would be a little careful when it comes to politics and history though!!



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  • Modesti – The desire to go to Mars was expressed by the US President in May of 2013 and NASA was direct to find a way. This research may have been related to that announcement, or it may have been an entirely independent project. Either way, if we intend to go to Mars some day and want to be able to get back to Earth after, then we need to create new technologies to make that possible, as stated here shortly after President Obama made the announcement:

    http://www.space.com/20999-nasa-manned-mars-missions.html

    For more information about this new engine you can read the press release and watch a video of it in action here:

    https://www.northumbria.ac.uk/about-us/news-events/news/2015/03/breakthrough-in-energy-harvesting-could-power-life-on-mars/



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  • But the conditions that keep the Carbon Dioxide in its solid state (below -78.5 deg C), would also keep the “hot plate” at that temperature, so you would have to input heat to get the “hot plate” up to room temperature.



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  • 14
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    @Olgun

    I can live with that but object to Wiki being useless. Science facts are science facts. I would be a little careful when it comes to politics and history though!!

    I don’t think it’s useless, I was just poking a little sarcasm at what you once wrote about Wikipedia that went along the lines of “WikiP contains nothing of value” or “no valid information”.

    I’m glad that you’re bringing up the clarification (science vs. politics) in your above post however. You hadn’t made that distinction in the aforementionned post and I had assumed that you were knocking WikiP as a whole which is what got me a little upset back then which in turn transpired in my reply.



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  • NearlyNakedApe

    I don’t think it’s useless, I was just poking a little sarcasm at what
    you

    🙂 I know, hence my tongue-in-cheek reply but, and I admit I could be remembering it wrong (not that it matters. Water under the bridge and all that) it was in a political context I wrote it at the time?

    I’m glad that you’re bringing up the clarification

    Sorry if I confused at the time…



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  • Shane Mar 19, 2015 at 6:43 pm

    But the conditions that keep the Carbon Dioxide in its solid state (below -78.5 deg C), would also keep the “hot plate” at that temperature, so you would have to input heat to get the “hot plate” up to room temperature.

    I too am uncertain how exactly this would work on Mars, but there could certainly be a temperature difference.

    CO2 snows out at the poles in the Martian winter, and sublimates during the summer, causing winds to carry massive dust-storms to the opposite hemisphere.
    There is also a day / night temperature variation.

    Conditions on Mars: –
    Temperatures, seasons, climate

    The average surface temperature
    on Mars ranges from 180 to 270 K, or –93 degrees C to –3 degrees C (- 135 degrees F to 26 degrees F)
    .
    Daytime temperatures range from 216 -226 K (-57 to – 47 degrees C, or –71 to –53 degrees F),
    and nighttime temperatures rangefrom 153 -208 K ( -120 to –65 degrees C, or –184 to –85 degrees F).
    http://www.edb.utexas.edu/missiontomars/pdf/MC4.pdf



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  • The link below by bubsir gives,

    However, the present cycle involves sublimation (or thin-film boiling)
    as the phase change and ensures the stabilization of a low-friction
    vapour layer by keeping the temperature of the hot surface above TL

    Does that mean the heat is recycled? (Not rocket fuel after all Doh!)



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  • Olgun Mar 19, 2015 at 7:33 pm

    Does that mean the heat is recycled?

    The heat variations between seasons, and between day and night, are being used to provide a temperature differential and heat-flow. The large quantity of dry-ice (CO2 snow) at the poles, can be heated with this “heat” from the environment.

    Despite being well below the freezing point of water, Mars’ environment is well above absolute zero (Zero Kelvin), so its molecules contain heat! (But to quote Star-Trek – Not “heat” as we know it on Earth!)

    CO2 is cycling between atmospheric gas and ice-caps, seasonally on Mars.



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  • what Martian colonists?

    That is for them to know, and us to find out!

    Carl Sagan eloquently stated in ‘Message to Mars’: there is a feedback loop of science /and/ science fiction. Perhaps this is why the researchers think about the right stuff.



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  • Recent discoveries suggest that extra-terrestrial colonists could go back to being cave dwellers.

    Lava tubes provide caverns with relatively stable temperatures and protection from surface radiation.

    http://sservi.nasa.gov/articles/lava-tube-lunar-base/

    Natural caverns occur on the moon in the form of ‘lava tubes’, which are the drained conduits of underground lava rivers. The inside dimensions of these tubes measure tens to hundreds of meters, and their roofs are expected to be thicker than 10 meters. Consequently, lava tube interiors offer an environment that is naturally protected from the hazards of radiation and meteorite impact.

    The interiors of lava tubes could protect human explorers from different aspects of the lunar environment, including cosmic rays, meteorite impacts, and the extreme temperature differences between the lunar day and night. Just like caves on the Earth, lunar caves, including lava tubes, have benign temperatures that are constant. These are extremely favorable environmental conditions for human activities and industrial operations. Significant operational, technological, and economical benefits might result if a lunar base were constructed inside a lava tube.

    Mars also has volcanoes, so lava tubes are also likely in some locations there.

    On Earth, some of these caves, where liquid lava has drained out down a slope, can be miles long and huge!

    On Mars, if they were heated and pressurised, they might even have melt water draining into a sump in them though the walls.



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