This method is a significant improvement over current techniques for producing methane-based propellants, which all require complicated processes and large facilities.
Though the new method has yet to be tested under real-world conditions, the researchers said that their breakthrough technique shows a lot of promise.
A major hurdle in space travel is the limited supply of fuel that can be loaded in a rocket. As such, scientists and aerospace companies have been hard at work trying to figure out how to produce propellant in space.
SpaceX, for instance, is working on ways to produce methane, a gas with great potential for powering rockets because it is cheaper and has better performance than other propellants. The SpaceX Raptor, an advanced engine that will be used for the company's Starship spacecraft, runs on methane and is already being touted as the "future" of SpaceX's endeavors.
To make methane in space, Musk proposes using a solar infrastructure to generate electricity and initiate the electrolysis of carbon dioxide, which produces methane when mixed with water from the ice found on Mars. This method, called the Sabatier process, is also used by astronauts on the International Space Station to transform water into breathable oxygen.
But though the Sabatier process has been done successfully in the space station, the researchers said that it will not be efficient when carried out on Mars. It uses a nickel catalyst to interact with hydrogen and carbon dioxide at extremely high temperatures and pressures. As such, this two-stage procedure has to be done in a large facility to operate efficiently.
The UC Irvine researchers wanted to simplify the process and replace the required materials with those already available on Mars. They developed a method that requires less space, uses resources found on the planet like zinc and carbon dioxide and works well in an extreme environment.
"The process we developed bypasses the water-to-hydrogen process, and instead efficiently converts [carbon dioxide] into methane with high selectivity," said Houlin Xin, an assistant professor in physics and astronomy and the lead investigator of the study.
The key to the simplified method, according to the researchers, is the use of zinc as a catalyst. "The zinc is fundamentally a great catalyst. It has time, selectivity and portability – a big plus for space travel," said Xin.
But the researchers noted that their breakthrough one-step process is still a "proof of concept," meaning it was successfully tested in a lab but has yet to be done under real-world conditions. (Related: Scientists use computer simulations to understand the possibility of hyperspace travel via black holes.)
"Lots of engineering and research is needed before this can be fully implemented," said Xin. "But the results are very promising."
There are also other attempts to make space travel to Mars a possibility. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), for example, is testing a small device that can convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. Called the Mars Oxygen in Situ Resource Utilization Experiment or MOXIE, the device is currently aboard NASA's Perseverance rover which is expected to land on the Red Planet next month.
Though MOXIE can only produce small amounts of oxygen at the moment, NASA has high hopes for the experimental device. Besides providing breathable air for astronauts, the produced oxygen can also be used to make liquid oxygen, a popular oxidizer required to burn propellants.
For more on groundbreaking experiments, visit Breakthrough.news.