Students breathe fresh life into dream of Mars exploration

A group of University of Calgary engineering students won a contest with a simulation to create oxygen on Mars.

'We looked at using the carbon dioxide in the soil in Mars, to create it instead of shipping it there'

This image was taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. A group of University of Calgary chemical engineering students calculated a way to create oxygen on the planet. (Greg Shirah/NASA)

Some University of Calgary chemical engineering students think they've figured out how humankind might be able to breathe on Mars.

The group's project was chosen as the first place winner of the school's 2018 Engineering Design Fair.

Team member Laura Fader, who's also president of the Engineering Students' Society at the Schulich School of Engineering, spoke to The Homestretch about the project.

Q: Where did the idea come from?

A: There was a list of projects we could choose from, so as soon as we saw the list, and saw that this was there, we knew that this was our project.

The shipping costs would be enormous. We looked at a basis of about six astronauts, and you would need to ship over 800 tonnes of oxygen, which is quite a bit.

We looked at using the carbon dioxide in the soil in Mars, to create [oxygen] instead of shipping it there.

Winning University of Calgary chemical engineering team, from left to right: Alina Kunitskaya, Annie Nguyen, Laura Fader and Keith Cleland. (Schulich School of Engineering, University of Calgary)

Q: What do you do?

A: First we separate the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — it makes up 95 per cent of it. Then, we electrochemically split it to produce oxygen.

Then we deal with the carbon monoxide. We don't want to be emitting that from our process — so we create useful byproducts instead of releasing that.

Q: What does the process look like? How expensive is it?

A: It's a four part process — and how NASA actually looks at these processes [is] they use a thing called Equivalence Systems Mass. Instead of looking at the cost of your project, the capital cost is going to be completely marginal to what it's going to cost to ship it — so when we did our calculations, we figured we'd be saving $3 billion in shipping costs!

We were able to come up with the mass that it would take to ship to Mars, and it would be just 9 per cent of what that initial mass would be if you were to ship it .

All of our calculations, we were able to do them in several different methods, as well as validate it — and put it in a simulator as well. We used the literature that's out there as well as the support of our supervisor, and were able to get where we are today.

Emerging technologies such as Elon Musk's SpaceX rocket make the idea of travel to Mars more realistic than fantasy fiction, says University of Calgary chemical engineer Laura Fader, whose team of chemical engineers won the school's annual design fair with a plan to create oxygen on the red planet. (SpaceX)

Q: What was the reaction from everyone at the design fair?

A:  When people first hear about this project, they see this fantasy project almost — and we were able to show that no, this is really a reality.

You mentioned Space X — [and] that technology, being able to ship to Mars — is making what we're doing a reality.

So it was really awesome to be able to talk to the public, students, industry and all the support that's there as well.

Q: What's the next phase? Will you call up NASA?

A: We're really excited to see where it goes as we wrap up this semester. Like I said, some of our group members are very into space, and want to pursue this by all means — so we're excited to see where it goes [from here].

With files from The Homestretch

About the Author

Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email: stephen.hunt@cbc.ca