Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has unveiled plans to work on a program that will convert carbon dioxide (CO2) into rocket fuel, potentially solving the climate change crisis and cleaning up pollution all in one go.
Musk, who described the program as important for his mission to Mars, has been seeking ways to feasibly and economically create reliable transport to Mars, for the purpose of colonizing the red planet.
Much of the world’s richest man’s technological endeavors have been directed towards the ultimate goal of space colonization. Providing few details, Musk announced the program on Twitter, where he wrote “SpaceX is starting a program to take CO2 out of the atmosphere & turn it into rocket fuel. Please join if interested… Will also be important for Mars.”
Should the program prove successful, it would alleviate much of the concern over the abundance of anthropologically-generated carbon dioxide, and convert the pollutant into usable fuel. Crucially, the use of carbon dioxide as a fuel source would lift not only rockets but the dangers associated with fossil-fuel-based rocket launches, which are volatile and prone to exploding.
Musk’s remarks prompted a flurry of responses on social media, with astrophysicist and YouTuber Scott Manley stating that the effort to convert carbon dioxide into fuel “has been demonstrated,” adding that “doing it at starship scale is a whole new level.”
In 2016, a NASA materials scientist Bin Chen patented a new technology that allows for the conversion of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into fuel using low-cost, solar-powered thin-film devices.
The NASA overview explains:
Metal oxide thin films are fabricated to produce a photoelectrochemical cell that is powered by solar energy. By converting CO2 to fuel before it is emitted to the atmosphere this technology can mitigate the effects of the burning of fossil fuels, the worlds major fuel source for the foreseeable future This new nanomaterial thin-film device provides a low cost, facile fabrication pathway to commercialize the technology in the sustainable energy market. More importantly, it results in a zero carbon footprint by recycling C02 to fuels that are compatible with all existing fuel utilities. This is accomplished by using solar power to convert the C02 into a useable fuel in a very compact device.
This technology consists of a photoelectrochemical cell composed of thin metal oxide films. It uses sunlight (primarily the ultraviolet (UV), visible and Infrared (IR) portions)) and inexpensive titanium dioxide composites to perform the reaction. The device can be used to capture carbon dioxide produced in industrial processes before it is emitted to the atmosphere and convert it to a useful fuel such as methane. These devices can be deployed to the commercial market with low manufacturing and materials costs. They can be made extremely compact and efficient and used in sensor and detector applications.
Effectively functioning as a carbon-capture device, the technology allows for the conversion of the greenhouse gas into fuel for use in a compact device. Musk’s plans would embiggen the design and scale it up for use in a massive device such as a rocket propulsion system.
Musk’s SpaceX program is currently experimenting with reusable Starship rockets for the eventual goal of creating an economically efficient rocket delivery system that doesn’t require the disposal of hundreds of rockets each year. Instead, every satellite launch can re-use the same rockets, which can take off and land autonomously, effectively cutting the cost of space launches to a fraction of their current price.
The ambitious billionaire claimed last year that SpaceX will try to launch its first unmanned mission to Mars in 2022, followed by the first manned mission in 2026. Tentatively, Musk suggested that 2024 could be on the cards “if we get lucky.”
Despite his aspirations, Musk quipped that the first travelers to Mars “might not come back alive.”
“But it’s a glorious adventure, and it’ll be an amazing experience,” he said.