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Research - In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU)

The human and robotic exploration of the solar system presently is limited by the amount of resources that accompanies the spacecraft.  Long-term exploration will require humans and robotic spacecraft to "live off the land", generating resources such as fuel, water, and food from in-situ sources. JPL's Electrochemical Research, Technology, & Engineering Group is engaged in ISRU research, such as developing electrochemical methods for converting carbon dioxide to fuels. Efforts in this area have focused on the development and demonstration of prototype test cells, as well as the development of cell components (such as alkaline anion exchange membranes).

Recently, Dr. Kumar Bugga was one of thirteen recipients nationwide to win a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) award. Dr. Bugga will team with Michael Pauken at JPL, along with investigators from the California Institute of Technology and Liox, to develop a probe concept that can generate power from in-situ resources on Venus. The concept focuses on the generation of hydrogen from electrolysis at high altitudes using a solar array, storing it in a chemical hydride, utilizing it for altitude control in a balloon system, and generating power in a fuel cell at lower altitudes. Details can be found at: http://www.nasa.gov/feature/venus-interior-probe-using-in-situ-power-and-propulsion-vip-inspr

Previous studies have shown ISRU provides a viable pathway for supplying the fuel and oxygen for future Mars missions, by reducing readily available carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere. Ambient carbon dioxide reduction is likely to minimize or even eliminate the need to transport the large quantities of supplies from Earth to Mars. To successfully support these missions, however, large amounts of fuel and oxygen (e.g., 10 megatons per Martian year) will still be needed, necessitating development of high-volume approaches to carbon dioxide reduction.  JPL has partnered with Caltech and UC San Diego to hold a Keck Institute for Space Studies workshop ("Addressing the Mars ISRU Challenge: Production of Oxygen and Fuel from CO2 using Sunlight") focused on the photo-electrochemical production of fuel (such as carbon monoxide) and oxygen from carbon dioxide on the Mars surface. Rather than using high temperature processes dependent on power generated from solar arrays, sunlight would be used directly with a catalytic process to affect the low temperature conversion of carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide and oxygen using large area deployable photoelectrochemical panels. More details can be found at: http://kiss.caltech.edu/new_website/workshops/isru/isru.html

View of thin Mars atmosphere.
View of thin Mars atmosphere, comprised mainly of carbon dioxide (from Viking 1 orbiter). Sunlight can be used with this resource, to generate oxygen and fuels to support future Mars missions (http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/multimedia/gallery/Mars__atmosphere.jpg)
Schematic of test cell used to perform carbon dioxide reduction experiments (left), with alkaline anion exchange membrane developed at JPL (right)
Schematic of test cell used to perform carbon dioxide reduction experiments (left), with alkaline anion exchange membrane developed at JPL (right) suitable for use in an alkaline-based reduction cell.