Algae for Fuel Production on Mars

Algae could be used for fuel production on Mars and it would also produce oxygen on Mars. It would also produce fertilizer for growing crops on Mars.

Georgia Tech aims to reduce the Entry Descent Landing (EDL) mass of a crewed mission to Mars by approximately 7 tons. This technology will enable long-term human presence on Mars and beyond because costly propellant deliveries from Earth would be unnecessary. They will genetically engineer algae to efficiently convert the abundant CO2 in the Martian atmosphere into liquid hydrocarbons suitable for rocket propulsion and other energy needs on Mars. The proposed system grows algae biofilms that consume atmospheric CO2 and sunlight with minimal water resources.

The algae then provide a food source to the genetically optimized organisms/microbes, which are engineered to produce a monomer with ideal combustion behavior and liquid properties. These monomers would be used in a pump-fed LOX/monomer propellant combination to power a human-crewed Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV). They will focus on the production of C3-C4 diols, which have low melting points (less than -36ºC) for use as a liquid on Mars, and optimal energy content (over 14MJ/L), to provide the minimum thrust needed for ascent from Mars.

The chemical and physical properties, and energy density of these monomers suggest that they are capable of sufficient energy conversion through combustion for a crewed launch from Mars, making them excellent candidates for an ISRU rocket propellant. They are also liquid over a wide range of typical Mars temperatures, making them non-cyrogenic and storage stable. The oxygen atoms in the designed monomer will also enable a cleaner burn than conventional hydrocarbon propellants, supporting the reuse of rocket engines for multimission and interplanetary trips. Our approach will test the thermo-physical-chemical properties and combustion behavior of a suite of monomer rocket propellant candidates, while simultaneously developing the biological system for synthesizing them on Mars. By working together and in parallel, we will efficiently integrate testing feedback to quickly arrive at a co-optimized ISRU LOX/monomer rocket propellant. In total, these advantages will reduce infrastructure and resources needed to support human missions to Mars, and future, more ambitious efforts to expand human presence throughout the solar system.

SOURCE – NASA NIAC, Algae Express, Georgia Tech
Written By Brian Wang,

18 thoughts on “Algae for Fuel Production on Mars”

  1. Competition on Mars is going to be the abundant heat of nuclear power. Solar has issues due to half the insolation before you have to work around month long dust storms.

    On Mars "waste heat" is a valuable commodity. "Waste heat" is what keeps you alive at night and during the dust storms.

  2. You can only use water and CO2 in the rocket bell if you are using nuclear thermal propulsion. While this is good the thrust is low compared to Methane-oxygen.

    Please see the pdf referenced on this page where Zubrin discusses nuclear powered Mars landers using H20, CO2, CO, N2, Argon:

  3. They were trying to make algae compete financially with pulling oil out of the ground, no similar competition on Mars.

  4. Oxygen, like methane, will be produced for an Earth return rocket anyhow, and the quantity of methane and oxygen needed to run rovers hundreds of kilometers is trivial compared to what you'll need to send a Starship back to Earth.

    Water ice is looking reasonably abundant in the right areas of Mars, and in the quantities need to refuel a rocket (let alone mere rovers) shouldn't be a problem.

    Storing methane and oxygen in a near vacuum environment is actually easier than here on Earth, since the containers can more easily be kept cold without so much atmospheric conduction and convection. The oxygen and methane could easily be kept cold enough that pressure won't be a significant issue. That's essentially how the fuel and oxygen tanks of Mars rockets will work.

    I believe SpaceX is aiming at ~5bar for Starship, and tanks for surface use on Mars can be heavier and hence stronger and better insulated and better shielded from sunlight. Note that common propane gas cylinders typically have a safety pressure release that trips around ~25bar – i.e. they're expected to safely handle up to 5x the pressure of SpaceX rocket tanks.

  5. Nonsense, why do I have even to detail it?
    You need to produce both the fuel and the oxidizer, not mine the fuel only as here on earth. You need water to make fuel on Mars, which is scarce. Both the fuel and the oxidizer need to be stored in a near vacuum environment which is much more complicated and expensive than storing most fuels here on earth. Fuel for rockets will be produced, only because there are no other options.

  6. about algae on earth? Oh yeah, that's right. This was touted 10 – 15 years ago. Whatever happened to the likes of Origin Oil and Algenol?

  7. A few things combustion has going for it:

    • The colony will already producing fuel – methane and oxygen for rockets – so they'll have the hardware to make fuel for other uses.
    • Chemical fuel offers denser energy storage than batteries, even carrying along O2 – important for long-range transport. (And the load gets lighter as you go.)
    • Once the colony can produce metal – a high priority for many reasons – they can produce most of the mass of ICE engines, fitting them out with a modest mass of imported components (gaskets, insulated wires, electronics).
    • Fuel tanks could also be made locally fairly early, expanding energy storage. The colony will be limited to whatever batteries they bring with them for quite a while longer.

    Combustion will have a very significant role in the colonization of Mars.

  8. This algae scheme might make better use of imported and in situ resources, vs using electricity to electrolyze water to produce H2 for the Sabatier process.

    PV panels should be a fair ways down the 'technology tree' of colony bootstrapping, so PV solar relies on landing fairly heavy and bulky panels. If the PV panels are mostly tied up producing rocket fuel, the colony will be energy starved until they develop a local alternative.

    Colonists should develop concentrated solar thermal early on. A lot more solar energy can be collected with large mirrors made from imported metal foil and thin supports, than the same mass of PV panels. Concentrated solar process heat should be useful for metal and glass production, allowing production of more solar concentration systems from in situ materials.

    But the same production systems might produce the bulk of hardware for algae farms (metal for framing, glass for light-admitting containment), freeing up imported PV panel electricity for other uses.

    I'm not saying algae's the clear winner – concentrated solar can also be used to power turbines to generate electricity, and locally producing turbines and generators should also be a fairly early priority for colonists looking to locally source a lot of electricity production. But maybe this makes algae more of a contender for fuel production than it appears at first glance, given the side benefit of producing the basis of a local food-chain?

  9. ooouuh-dunno. that's looks to be a very loverly and precious little farm, utterly ill-suited to anticipated grade-level winds, storm conditions, and debris – i mean, if we are allowing regular access to UV, atmospheric chemicals, and regular maintenance/ harvest/ upgrade — this seems almost 1-in-100-year Kansas-like. Hasn't there been interesting tech on concentrated/ filtered light monitors? — all the joys of natural UV, where-and-when you want, without high energy demands – reasonably protected and controllable. Really ground level farms?

  10. Actually, asteroids, particularly NEO/TCO, are quite good. Even the Moon is an asteroid, from this point of view, as it has no atmos, so is easy to mine. I suspect from what you say that you have not read O'Neill "The High Frontier". In fact, you seem to to suffer from planetarianism.

  11. Seems a little redundant when the Sabatier reaction exists. Just more to go wrong. What if your algae gets a disease? Or freezes with a power cut? You'll have to repopulate the whole thing, which will take time. With a Sabatier reactor you just turn it back on. Relying on biology for something so mission critical is a fool's choice.

  12. There are no resources in space. Space is essentially an empty vacuum, nothingness. The only valuable resource that space consists of is the solar or cosmic winds, and that's only useful for traveling through space.

    It's only through planetary bodies where you can draw resources. LEO, or a lot of what you define as "space" is only valuable because of the resources able to be drawn from Earth or other planetary bodies. LEO is not space, it is really an extension of Earth's resources.

    Mars, although seemingly an uninhabitable wasteland, has infinitely more resource potential than the vast emptiness of space. Although our current technology is nowhere near being able to exploit the resource potential of Mars, we do dream that one day we will be able to and also live on Mars. This is why Mars has captured the imagination. This is why we go to Mars.

  13. ISM, In Space Manufacturing, works by including ISRU concepts, but with the observation that the advantages of Space are not merely that the resources are there, as opposed to launch from Earth, but that the energy, *space* and selectable g vastly improve on planetary conditions. Do this stuff in Space!

  14. Power in mars will come from electricity, Solar and nuclear generated, combustion will never make sense economically on mars period.

Comments are closed.