From Georgia To Farming For Rocket Algae Biofuel On Mars

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Since everyone is talking about Georgia, now would be a good time to take a closer look at the Georgia Institute of Technology and its idea for building an algae biofuel farm on Mars. Since the algae biofuel market has been slow to catch hold on Earth, why not see if it makes sense somewhere else, like on another planet 36 million miles away. If that still doesn’t make sense, consider Georgia’s emerging role in space exploration and the pieces all fall into place.

algae biofuel Mars Georgia Tech
A research team from Georgia Tech proposes farming for algae biofuel on Mars (image via Georgia Tech).

Yes, We Are Going To Mars…

Before we get to the algae biofuel angle, let’s take a look and see what Georgia Tech is doing about Mars.

Why it seems like only yesterday that the idea of sending people to Mars was just so much talk. Nevertheless, robotic advance teams have been scouting the Red Planet with an assist from solar power, and preparations for a human mission are in the works.

If and when all those people get over there, they will probably make use of some of the technology in development at Georgia Tech.

In 2016, for example, Georgia Tech announced the creation of something called M.A.R.S, for Martian Advanced Renewable Systems, with NASA and the school’s Georgia Tech Research Institute.

The research team is on a mission to “address new applications for energy systems in extreme environments relating to energy generation, storage, and efficient use in Martian habitats.”

Just last summer, undergrad students at Georgia Tech nailed down first and second place slots in two different categories for their entry in NASA’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage competition.

The team designed a 30-day mission to Mars that would send the first person from Earth to another planet and back again, deploying both orbiting and surface habitats with search-for-life capabilities.

…And Beyond

That’s just for starters. Elsewhere around the nation plans are already under way for a project called 100 Year Starship, which was kickstarted by the US Department of Defense and NASA back in 2010.

The idea is not to build a starship that could last 100 years, it is to build a non-governmental R&D organization that can sustain itself over enough generations to get interstellar travel off the drawing board and into space.

The project comes under the purview of an organization aptly named 100 Year Starship, which hasn’t reported out much news during the Trump administration, but you can still keep up with them on Twitter at @100YSS.

We’re guessing 100 Year Starship is in stealth mode considering some of the blowback they got from certain policy makers who decided to make hay out of government programs with silly-sounding names, which just goes to prove the point that interstellar travel is a long term project that requires insulation from political attention seekers.

Helming the 100 Year Starship project is medical doctor and former astronaut Mae Jemison, who became the first woman of color in space in 1992. It’s not likely that Dr. Jemison would give up the idea of interstellar travel, so stay tuned for more news about the project after President-elect Biden takes office on January 20.

From Georgia Tech To Algae Biofuel Farming On Mars!

Where were we? Oh right, Mars. And algae biofuel. The latest idea from Georgia Tech is to produce a renewable rocket propellant right there on Mars, and it looks like algae farming is the ticket.

The idea was proposed last fall by Caroline Genzale of the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech, who is also a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Fellow.

For the record, the Martian algae farm is a collaborative effort that includes Genzale and her team, with another team headed up by Wenting Sun of Aerospace Engineering and Pamela Peralta-Yahya of Chemistry and Biochemistry (and Paper Science Engineering, too).

“The goal of this project is to engineer production of a renewable, liquid, rocket propellant on Mars. In situ production of rocket propellant has the opportunity to reduce initial payloads from Earth, reducing launch costs by billions of dollars. The process centers around photosynthetically grown algae, cultivated using Martian carbon dioxide and sunlight, and feeding the digested algal biomass to an engineered microbe to produce rocket fuel,” Genzale explains.

The fuel would be based on compounds called diols. Among other advantages, the team forsees that diols would yield a cleaner-burning fuel, which could potentially enable rockets to be used multiple times. That’s of interest because it dovetails with the undergrad Mars mission concept, which also involves reusable components.

More Renewable Energy Down On Earth

Circling back around to that thing about wasteful government spending, space programs can fill the same kind of R&D niche that defense programs do. As national interest programs that enjoy broad institutional support (and often broad public support), space and defense can provide the justification for spending enormous sums on foundational research that eventually trickles into civilian use.

Space and defense formed the basis for today’s earthbound solar technology, and the US Department of Defense still devotes substantial dollars to foundational renewable energy research.

That includes the US Navy, which was all in on algae biofuel during the Obama administration. The algae biofuel market has cooled off since then, but as of 2017 the US Department of Energy was still devoting research dollars to the field.

If all goes according to plan, Mars-oriented research at Georgia Tech could boomerang and lead to more efficient and cost-effective systems for cultivating algae for biofuel here on Earth.

One key element to keep an eye on is automation.

“The Martian environment poses a really interesting set of challenges, from identifying novel propellants that can be produced using only Martian resources, to actually building a rocket propellant plant more than 36 million miles away from Earth with minimal to no human labor,” says Genzale. “If we’re successful, we’ll be one critical step closer to realizing a sustainable colony of humans living on Mars.”

Keep an eye on the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, too. High profile schools like MIT and Stanford have been grabbing much of the clean tech spotlight, but Woodruff chair Dr. Samuel Graham notes that the school is one of the nation’s largest mechanical engineering programs, regularly ranks in the top 10 for both undergrad and graduate studies, and collaborates on research programs with several Energy Department laboratories.

Now that Georgia has is on track to wield its renewable energy influence in the halls of Congress, look for more news about Georgia Tech to pepper the media scene.

That includes CleanTechnica. We checked in just a couple of days ago when the school released a new power plant study, but other than that we kind of lost track of them after 2014, when they teamed up with the University of Toledo to introduce some kind of molecular nano-gears with funding from the US Air Force.

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Image: “The production of a Martian biofuel from CO2 involves four modules: algae cultivation to convert CO2 to glucose, algae processing to release the stored glucose from the algal biomass, fermentation to convert glucose to the desired biofuel and separation of the biofuel for burning in a Mars ascent vehicle (MAV). Other key parts of the process include H2O recycling to maximize the use of limited Martian water and O2 storage to capture excess photosynthetic oxygen for redistribution to other parts of a Martian colony” (credit: BOKO Mobile Study via Georgia Tech, Renewable Products Institute).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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