Science fiction stories are chock full of terraforming schemes and oxygen generators for a very good reason—we humans need molecular oxygen (O2) to breathe, and space is essentially devoid of it. Even on other planets with thick atmospheres, O2 is hard to come by.
So, when we explore space, we need to bring our own oxygen supply. That is not ideal because a lot of energy is needed to hoist things into space atop a rocket, and once the supply runs out, it is gone.
One place molecular oxygen does appear outside of Earth is in the wisps of gas streaming off comets. The source of that oxygen remained a mystery until two years ago when Konstantinos P. Giapis, a professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, and his postdoctoral fellow Yunxi Yao, proposed the existence of a new chemical process that could account for its production. Giapis, along with Tom Miller, professor of chemistry, have now demonstrated a new reaction for generating oxygen that Giapis says could help humans explore the universe and perhaps even fight climate change at home. More fundamentally though, he says the reaction represents a new kind of chemistry discovered by studying comets.
Most chemical reactions require energy, which is typically provided as heat. Giapis’s research shows that some unusual reactions can occur by providing kinetic energy. When water molecules are shot like extremely tiny bullets onto surfaces containing oxygen, such as sand or rust, the water molecule can rip off that oxygen to produce molecular oxygen. This reaction occurs on comets when water molecules vaporize from the surface and are then accelerated by the solar wind until they crash back into the comet at high speed.
Comets, however, also emit carbon dioxide (CO2). Giapis and Yao wanted to test if CO2could also produce molecular oxygen in collisions with the comet surface. When they found O2 in the stream of gases coming off the comet, they wanted to confirm that the reaction was similar to water’s reaction. They designed an experiment to crash CO2 onto the inert surface of gold foil, which cannot be oxidized and should not produce molecular oxygen. Nonetheless, O2 continued to be emitted from the gold surface. This meant that both atoms of oxygen come from the same CO2 molecule, effectively splitting it in an extraordinary manner.
“At the time we thought it would be impossible to combine the two oxygen atoms of a CO2molecule together because CO2 is a linear molecule, and you would have to bend the molecule severely for it to work,” Giapis says. “You’re doing something really drastic to the molecule.”
To understand the mechanism of how CO2 breaks down to molecular oxygen, Giapis approached Miller and his postdoctoral fellow Philip Shushkov, who designed computer simulations of the entire process. Understanding the reaction posed a significant challenge because of the possible formation of excited molecules. These molecules have so much energy that their constituent atoms vibrate and rotate around to an enormous degree. All that motion makes simulating the reaction in a computer more difficult because the atoms within the molecules move in complex ways.
“In general, excited molecules can lead to unusual chemistry, so we started with that,” Miller says. “But, to our surprise, the excited state did not create molecular oxygen. Instead, the molecule decomposed into other products. Ultimately, we found that a severely bent CO2can also form without exciting the molecule, and that could produce O2.”
The apparatus Giapis designed to perform the reaction works like a particle accelerator, turning the CO2 molecules into ions by giving them a charge and then accelerating them using an electric field, albeit at much lower energies than are found in a particle accelerator. However, he adds that such a device is not necessary for the reaction to occur.
“You could throw a stone with enough velocity at some CO2 and achieve the same thing,” he says. “It would need to be traveling about as fast as a comet or asteroid travels through space.”
That could explain the presence of small amounts of oxygen that have been observed high in the Martian atmosphere. There has been speculation that the oxygen is being generated by ultraviolet light from the sun striking CO2, but Giapis believes the oxygen is also generated by high-speed dust particles colliding with CO2 molecules.
He hopes that a variation of his reactor could be used to do the same thing at more useful scales—perhaps one day serving as a source of breathable air for astronauts on Mars or being used to combat climate change by pulling CO2, a greenhouse gas, out of Earth’s atmosphere and turning it into oxygen. He acknowledges, however, that both of those applications are a long way off because the current version of the reactor has a low yield, creating only one to two oxygen molecules for every 100 CO2 molecules shot through the accelerator.
“Is it a final device? No. Is it a device that can solve the problem with Mars? No. But it is a device that can do something that is very hard,” he says. “We are doing some crazy things with this reactor.”
The Latest on: New chemistry
via Google News
The Latest on: New chemistry
- Lobos working on developing chemistry during summer practiceon June 18, 2021 at 8:33 pm
The Lobos have speed and size. They hope what they accomplish in June translates to the season in November. "With a new team, it's really important gel and get that chemistry," KJ Jenkins. "That's ...
- Stoicheia cofounder wins prestigious Royal Society of Chemistry Prizeon June 18, 2021 at 2:00 pm
Mirkin, co founder of materials discovery startup Stoicheia, has received the Royal Chemistry Society’s prestigious de Gennes Prize. The prize is biennially awarded to one scientist for outstanding ...
- Jets rookies Zach Wilson and Elijah Moore already have developed chemistryon June 18, 2021 at 1:39 pm
Zach Wilson and Elijah Moore have been building chemistry on the football field and it’s something they hope to strengthen off of it, also. Wilson and Moore have some natural connections. The obvious ...
- Scientists propose a new strategy to regulate the cell communication networkon June 17, 2021 at 1:39 pm
A study performed by researchers at the Institute for Advanced Chemistry of Catalonia (IQAC-CSIC) from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) in collaboration with Stony Brook University (U.S.) ...
- EPA Announces Winners of the 2021 Green Chemistry Challenge Awardson June 17, 2021 at 9:26 am
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on June 15, 2021, the winners of the 2021 Green Chemistry Challenge Awards. EPA states that “[g]reen chemistry is the design of ...
- A cannabis-chemistry upstart just raised $25 million for a new approach to one of the hottest parts of the industryon June 17, 2021 at 6:46 am
Trait Biosciences is working on technology to make it easier to infuse chemicals like THC and CBD into drinks.
- Pioneering chemistry approach could lead to more robust soft electronicson June 16, 2021 at 12:59 pm
A new approach to studying conjugated polymers has made it possible for an Army-funded research team to measure, for the first time, the individual molecules' mechanical and kinetic properties during ...
- NanoGraf unveils new battery chemistry materialson June 15, 2021 at 10:24 pm
NanoGra’s silicon-oxide anode material can increase battery capacity in the 18650 form factor by an initial 12% at commercially competitive prices.
- EPA Announces Winners in New York and New Jersey for the 2021 Green Chemistry Challenge Awardson June 15, 2021 at 12:10 pm
Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the winners of the 2021 Green Chemistry Challenge Awards, including New York organization Bristol Myers Squibb and New Jersey ...
- New Chemistry for Cleaner Combustion Engines – From New Clues to the Origins of the Universeon June 13, 2021 at 6:41 am
Key to Cleaner Combustion? Look to the Stars In a decade-long quest, scientists at Berkeley Lab, the University of Hawaii, and Florida International University uncover new clues to the origins of the ...
via Bing News