The robot chemist, developed by scientists in China, could provide breathable air, rocket fuel, and more for future settlers of the red planet
Life on Mars still seems a long way off, but in the last few years there’s been a huge push to prepare humanity to inhabit the red planet. This includes training the astronauts and settlers themselves, but also developing a host of new technologies to support them while they’re out there. This week (November 13) a group of researchers in China brought us one step closer to this support system, with the unveiling of a “robot chemist” powered by AI.
First, a bit of background on Mars. Back in October, NASA’s Curiosity rover uncovered evidence that it was once a “planet of rivers” with running liquid water that might even have harboured life. By that point, though, we’d already known about the presence of solid water – in other words, ice – on the planet’s surface for some time, both in polar ice caps and the Martian soil. In 2022, Cambridge University even presented evidence that liquid water remains beneath the ice caps.
Why is water on Mars so important? Partly because it contains oxygen, which is in very short supply in the Martian atmosphere, presenting an obvious problem when it comes to future habitation. If astronauts and future space settlers want to survive on the planet for any length of time, it will probably involve extracting that oxygen somehow. This is where the team of scientists led by Jun Jiang at Hefei’s University of Science and Technology of China step in.
As the team points out in its new study (published in Nature Synthesis): “Oxygen supply must be the top priority for any human activity on Mars, because rocket propellants and life support systems consume substantial amounts of oxygen.” The problem is, we can’t just keep ferrying oxygen tanks or extraction tools back and forth – trips take a long time, and they’re incredibly expensive – so extraction needs to take place in-situ. Luckily, they claim to have found a solution, and it involves Martian meteorites, a pioneering robot, and (of course) AI.
As outlined in the study, the scientists developed a robot that can use materials already found on Mars to create catalysts – substances that speed up chemical reactions – that break down water, releasing oxygen in the process, which can then be captured and put to various uses. In theory, this can be done with complete autonomy, without human input.
“We have developed a robotic AI system that has a chemistry brain,” Jiang tells Nature. “We think our machine can make use of compounds in Martian ores without human guidance.” In fact, with its machine-leaning model “brain” and robotic arm, the system could apparently produce almost 60 grams of oxygen per hour for every square metre of Martian material. That may not sound like much but, as Jiang points out: “The robot can work continuously for years.”
The researchers aren’t just guessing, either. Back on Earth, they used the robot to process meteorites that originated from Mars – or that mimicked the planet’s surface – and found that it could successfully perform several steps, dissolving, separating and analysing the material, independently. It then searched more than 3.7 million formulae to find a chemical that could break down water, based on what it had to hand. This could have taken a single human researcher as long as 2,000 years, the team estimate.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that easier methods of synthesising oxygen on Mars won’t crop up before we touch down. One method, demonstrated by MOXIE (the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) on board NASA’s Perseverance rover, involves extracting it from Martian air, which is mostly carbon dioxide. Admittedly, MOXIE hasn’t made much so far, but with a more powerful power source it’s thought that it could easily provide enough oxygen to keep a human settlement alive.
Whatever happens, Jiang’s robot chemist has broader horizons than just generating oxygen. The AI could potentially learn to identify and produce other useful catalysts, as well, crafting all sorts of useful chemicals from Martian materials, like fertilisers. It could even take what it’s learned and apply it elsewhere, like on the moon, or beyond.