On Earth, plants convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into carbohydrates and oxygen – food for them and oxygen for us to breathe. There aren’t plants on Mars, but there is a lot of CO2. Technology that takes abundant resources, like CO2 found on the Red Planet, and turns them into useful supplies for human explorers could be key to long-term missions on Mars.
Phase 2 of NASA’s CO2 Conversion Challenge invites the public, academia and industry to build a system that demonstrates the conversion of CO2 in combination with hydrogen – without the use of plants – to produce simple sugar molecules known as D-sugars. A “sweet” and successful demonstration will earn up to three top teams a portion of $750,000.
The ability to make D-sugars such as glucose in space could fuel bioreactors filled with microorganisms. These systems could rapidly convert sugar into valuable mission products, including nutrients, fuel, adhesives and other materials.
During Phase 1 of the competition, teams from across the country submitted system designs, provided information on how the conversion would occur, and explained how their system would work in space. Submissions also provided fabrication and testing plans. In May 2019, NASA awarded five teams a total of $250,000. Phase 2, the demonstration phase of the competition, will award up to three teams from a prize purse of $750,000, for a total challenge prize purse of $1 million. Participation in Phase 1 is not required to participate in Phase 2.
“This unique competition calls on the public to help NASA solve a complex challenge and develop innovative systems,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator of the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington. “We look forward to demonstrating oxygen production from the Martian atmosphere with an instrument onboard the Mars 2020 rover. However, the abundance of CO2 in Mars’ atmosphere can enable even more opportunities for in-situ manufacturing of products that will enable humans to live and thrive sustainably on the planet, and also be implemented on Earth by using both waste and atmosphere CO2 as a resource.”
While sugar-based biomaterials can be made on Earth, the current processes cannot be easily adapted for space missions because of limited resources such as energy, water and crew time.
The CO2 Conversion Challenge is part of Centennial Challenges, an element of the Prizes and Challenges program within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate that offers incentive prizes to generate revolutionary research and technology solutions to problems of interest to NASA and the nation. Centennial Challenges is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
For information about the CO2 Conversion Challenge, visit: http://www.co2conversionchallenge.org
To participate in challenges, prize competitions and citizen science activities that develop solutions for problems related to NASA’s mission, visit: www.nasa.gov/solve
Source: NASA, press release, 2019-09-19.