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No Human Has Been To Mars. One UC Researcher May Have Figured Out A Way To Get Astronauts Back

A rendering of the SpaceX Dragon on Mars.

If you go to Mars, you’ll be stuck there unless scientists figure out a way to make the rocket fuel to bring you back. (And mitigate myriad other risks.)

Think how much rocket fuel it would take to go 34 million miles and then double it to come back!

There are plenty of ideas, but none of them have been tried outside a lab.

One such theory is converting carbon dioxide, of which there is plenty on Mars, into methane. How would you do this?

UC College of Engineering and Applied Science Assistant Professor Jingjie Wu says you could easily pump carbon dioxide, water and a carbon catalyst through a reactor and produce methane for a rocket.

"It’s like a gas station on Mars,” he says.

The astronauts on the International Space Station use a Sabatier reactor to clean up the air they breathe and to make rocket fuel that keeps the ISS in orbit.

The University of Cincinnati collaborated with Rice University in Houston, Shanghai University and East China University of Science and Technology to test this method and publish an article in the journal Nature Communications.

Andrew Higley/UC Creative + Brand
UC chemical engineer Jingjie Wu holds up the reactor where a catalyst converts carbon dioxide into methane. UC's research makes him optimistic that scientists will be able to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Here’s How Easy It Could Be

“There is a lot of carbon dioxide - 90 to 95% - so we can convert carbon dioxide to methane,” Wu explains. The catalyst would be a very small bit of carbon on the nanoscale.

And the time it would take to put the ingredients in would be the time it takes to make the fuel. “You can scale up the reactor as big as you need," he says. "That’s not a problem.”

Other ideas:

What Does This Mean On Earth?

This process could help minimize climate change and produce fuel as a byproduct.

“The process is 100 times more productive than it was just 10 years ago," Wu says. "So, you can imagine that progress will come faster and faster. In the next 10 years we’ll have a lot of startup companies to commercialize this technique.”

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.