Jun 05, 2019 10:43 AM EDT
Oxygen is necessary in sustaining life and considered as a precious gem since it cannot be found in space. However, based on the studies, molecular oxygen is present in the wisps of gas streaming off comets. The reason behind this remains a mystery until two scientists namely Professor Konstantinos P. Giapis of chemical engineering at Caltech and his postdoctoral fellow Yunxi Yao proposed a new chemical process that could account for its production. The chemical reaction was possible by studying comets and considering it as the fundamental basis for the new discovery. The demonstration of the reaction was done by Giapis along with the professor of Chemistry, Tom Miller. It is a method that can fight climate change and at the same time explore even the universe.
The research showed how kinetic energy serves as a starting material for an unusual chemical reaction. In this observation, they found out the similarities of the generation of molecular oxygen in a comet and the reaction of water molecule on a surface for the production of oxygen. Both were driven by kinetic energy. In the case of comets, the water molecule vaporizes from the surface and being accelerated by solar wind, crashing them back into the comet at high speed leading to the formation of oxygen. Water molecules were shot like tiny bullets on a surface containing oxygen such as sand and rust. Afterwards, the molecules rip off the oxygen present on the surface, thus, leading to the formation of oxygen.
On the other hand, oxygen is not only the gas emitted by comets but also CO2. For this, Giapis and Yao were curious if just like water, CO2 will be able to produce oxygen when it collides with a comet. They conducted an experiment which crash CO2 onto an inert surface of gold foil that cannot be oxidized and does not produce molecules of oxygen. On the contrary, oxygen gas continues to be emitted, therefore, showing that oxygen atoms come from the CO2 molecule by splitting.
"At time we thought it would be impossible to combine the two oxygen atoms of a CO2 molecule together because CO2 is a linear molecule, and you would have to bend the molecule severely for it to work," explained Giapi.
"You're doing something really drastic to the molecule," he added.
In order to understand the mechanism on how CO2 breaks onto molecular oxygen, Miller and Philip Shushkov designed computer simulation for the process. The reaction led to the formation of excited molecules causing for all the rotational and vibrational movement of the atoms. These complex movements of atoms make the stimulation complicated.
"In general, excited molecules can lead to unusual chemistry, so we started with that," Miller said. "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 CO2 can also form without exciting the molecules and could produce oxygen," he explained.
The apparatus designed by Giapis works like a particle accelerator. It turns the CO2 into ions and accelerating them using an electric field at lower energies found in particle accelerator.
"You could throw a stone with enough velocity at some CO2 and achieve the same thing.It would need to be travelling about as fast as a comet or asteroid travels through space," he added.
The said observations are what Giapis believed to cause the presence of small amount of oxygen in the Martian atmosphere involving the collision of high-speed dust particles with CO2 molecules.
The reactor is still on its long way off. A lower yield of oxygen can only be obtained for every 100 CO2 molecules producing one to two oxygen molecules. Despite these facts, Giapis still believes that eventually his reactor will be useful and maybe it will not only be used in addressing problems regarding climate change but can also provide breathable oxygen air for astronauts in Mars, according to Space Ref.
"Is it a final device? No. Is it still a device that can solve the problem with Mars? No. But it is a device that can do something that is very hard," he said.
"We are doing some crazy thing with this reactor," he concluded.
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