Research team builds AI robot to create oxygen on Martian surface

November 13, 2023

AI Mars

A robot equipped with AI has successfully used Martian meteorite extracts to create oxygen. 

This pioneering experiment, conducted by a team at the University of Science and Technology of China and reported in Nature Synthesis, demonstrates the potential of AI to support space exploration or even planetary colonization.

The AI robot’s task was to develop a catalyst from the Martian rock samples, accelerating the process of producing oxygen from water. 

In chemical terms, a catalyst is a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction without being consumed in the process. In this context, the catalyst facilitates the extraction of oxygen from water – a critical process for supporting human life on Mars.

The team’s experiment involved using a robotic AI chemist to automate the creation and optimization of this catalyst. This approach was necessary because producing oxygen on Mars requires efficiently converting water into oxygen, which is challenging in the harsh Martian environment. 

The catalyst developed is a complex multi-metallic compound. Specifically, it’s a six-metal catalyst composed of manganese, iron, nickel, magnesium, aluminum, and calcium. 

This unique combination was identified through an AI-driven process that analyzed and tested millions of potential compositions to find the most effective formula for the oxygen evolution reaction (OER).

Here’s how it works in practice:

  • Water splitting: The primary goal is to split water (H2O) molecules into oxygen (O2) and hydrogen (H2). This process requires an input of energy and occurs through an electrochemical reaction.
  • Role of the catalyst: The catalyst, composed of manganese (Mn), iron (Fe), nickel (Ni), magnesium (Mg), aluminum (Al), and calcium (Ca), plays a crucial role in this reaction. It serves to lower the amount of energy needed to initiate and sustain the water-splitting process. Essentially, it makes oxygen extraction from water more efficient and feasible, especially under Martian conditions.
  • Oxygen evolution reaction (OER): During the OER, the catalyst facilitates the release of oxygen atoms from water molecules. In the presence of the catalyst, water molecules are more readily broken down into oxygen and hydrogen with the help of an electric current.

The AI robot analyzed vast experimental and theoretical data to synthesize a viable catalyst from over 3.7 million possible formulas. The team successfully demonstrated the process under Martian-like temperatures and proved the feasibility of remotely controlling the operation.

Achieving this result manually would have required an estimated 2,000 years of human labor, the authors estimate. 

Professor Jun Jiang, a co-author of the paper, emphasized the significance of the achievement, stating, “The biggest implication is that an AI-guided robot is able to produce useful chemicals in unknown conditions with unknown materials.”

He envisions sending such robots to the Moon and Mars to produce essential chemicals and materials for human settlers.

Highlighting the importance of oxygen, Charles Cockell, a professor of astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh who was not involved in the study, remarked, “There’s no more important resource than oxygen to breathe.”

He described the experiment as a “thrilling example” of using robots on Mars to extract minerals that can catalyze oxygen production from the planet’s abundant ice, paving the way for permanent, self-sustaining settlements.

In time, robotic labs could lay the infrastructural groundwork on Mars and other planets prior to the arrival of human colonizers. 

Dr. Stephen Thompson, a planetary expert, suggested that AI labs in space could act as “filling stations” for spacecraft, utilizing the hydrogen left over from oxygen extraction. 

This research integrates chemistry, robotics, and software design to open new possibilities for human settlement on other planetary bodies – an area where AI robots will excel. 

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Sam Jeans

Sam is a science and technology writer who has worked in various AI startups. When he’s not writing, he can be found reading medical journals or digging through boxes of vinyl records.


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