Magnets May Help Humans Breathe in Space

Humans hope to colonize the Moon and land on Mars within the next decade. Or, at least that’s the idea. However, there are still many technical issues to be resolved. How to plan a journey of more than 100 million kilometers (one way), which will take at least a year, and during which time, the people on the spacecraft must be able to live independently, including access to emergency medical treatment, and produce their own resources (including food or their breathing). air). As space becomes the new colonial “Wild West,” more and more talent, companies, and resources are being directed to solving problems that, not so long ago, existed only in the realm of science fiction.

Now, a team led by Álvaro Romero-Calvo, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech’s Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering from Granada, Spain, has come up with a relatively simple but still rare Known idea: Use magnets to separate different components from a liquid. For example, separating hydrogen (used to propel spacecraft) and oxygen (used for astronauts to breathe) from water.

Conventional logic leads us to the idea of carrying oxygen cylinders on expeditions, as is done here on Earth. However, in the case of space travel, this idea doesn’t work: it would be extremely expensive, or even infeasible, to carry all the resources for such a long trip, since it would take up space and payload capacity onboard the spacecraft, necessitating a larger spaceship, and thus consume more fuel (and cause other problems). On the International Space Station, for example, instead of carrying gas tanks for astronauts, the oxygen they need to sustain life is produced through a process called electrolysis: electricity, in this case, splits water into Tools for hydrogen and oxygen.

In addition, it must be possible to remove the gas produced by the system, which is a rather complicated task in space. “To understand this, imagine a can of soda: On Earth, because liquids are denser than gases, the air bubbles in the soda will separate and float to the top of the soda under the influence of Earth’s gravity,” Romero-Calvo explained “On the International Space Station, the microgravity environment will produce a continuous free fall effect and eliminate the buoyancy effect, and the substances in the soda will become more difficult to separate.” With the help of a large “centrifuge”, the International Space Station will be these The “air bubbles” are separated from the other components. But this creates vibrations on the space station that can interfere with science experiments on the station.

The biggest problem, however, is that this system of “expelling” air bubbles is a complex mechanism consisting of many parts, each of which can malfunction, rendering the device inoperable. When astronauts fly alone on months-long missions, failure of the system that prepares the air they need to breathe can create a critical situation. As mentioned earlier, carrying an air tank is an option, but not the most efficient. According to Romero-Calvo, a simple neodymium magnet can achieve the desired separation almost “naturally” and at low cost, so this could be a good option.

Magnets May Help Humans Breathe in Space

Magnets May Help Humans Breathe in Space

Romero-Calvo said: “As strange as it may sound, water and other liquids are ‘magnetic’ to a certain extent. More precisely, any liquid becomes polarized in the presence of a magnetic field. Specifically , water is a diamagnetic material, which means it is repelled by magnets. On Earth, we hardly notice the ‘repulsion’ of water. But in space, this becomes a material that can be used The force that separates the bubbles.”

Using this property of magnets, bubbles can be separated from liquids with the device developed by Romero-Calvo’s team. “In simple terms, magnets repel water and attract air bubbles, so you can collect them in one place, what we call a collector, and extract them using a passive system that doesn’t interfere and requires little to no energy,” he said. .The physics behind all this is well known in the physics community, but practically no one has yet developed its application in space.”

Recently, a Spanish scientific research team proposed such a wonderful idea-it can use magnets to produce oxygen in space. They proposed using magnets to separate hydrogen from water for propulsion, and oxygen for astronauts to breathe.

At present, astronauts walk in space mainly relying on oxygen tanks for support. Generally speaking, the oxygen tank on the extravehicular spacesuit can provide 6.5 to 8 hours of space exploration time. If astronauts wish to continue extravehicular activities, they need to return to the spacecraft to replace the oxygen tanks. The current longest single spacewalk record was achieved by American astronauts Jim Voss and Susan Helms, who spent 8 hours and 56 minutes servicing the International Space Station.

Oxygen tanks can only support astronauts to breathe in space for a short period of time. If they want to survive for a long time, they have to use other methods.

In October 2021, the Shenzhou 13 manned spacecraft successfully entered space with the “three-member space travel team” and stayed on the space station for 6 months.

In a space station, there are generally one or more sets of equipment for producing oxygen. The principle is very simple, that is, to use electricity to decompose water to produce hydrogen and oxygen. On the ground, electrolysis of water consumes more energy, and the hydrogen produced is dangerous. However, power supply on the space station is not an issue. Huge solar panels can continuously supply a large amount of electricity, and the accompanying hydrogen gas can also be emitted into space. The water used as raw material can be transported from the earth to the space station through the supply ship, and the water vapor in the air in the cabin can also be recovered through the condenser, and even the urine of the astronauts can be used to filter and recover.

Extracting oxygen from the systems that produce it is a rather complex task in space. On Earth, the gas is buoyant to the top of the liquid — like opening a can of soda, the air bubbles separate and float to the top of the soda. In the microgravity environment of the space station, this separation process will become extremely difficult. The International Space Station uses a large “centrifuge” to separate gases from liquids. However, this process will generate vibrations, which can easily interfere with scientific experiments on the space station.

Aiming at this “bottleneck” problem in the process of electrolyzing water, the Spanish scientific research team proposed a “simple and easy” solution, which can “naturally” achieve the required separation effect with only one magnet. Due to the relatively large oxygen-generating equipment on the space station, the problem of oxygen supply for astronauts carrying extravehicular activities may also be fundamentally solved.

“Water is a diamagnetic material, which means it is repelled by magnets. On Earth, we hardly notice the ‘repulsion’ of water, but in space, this becomes a material that can be used to The force that separates the bubbles,” said Romero Calvo, head of the research team. Taking advantage of the fact that magnets repel water and attract air bubbles, the team has now developed a device that can separate air bubbles from liquids and treat them using a passive system that does not interfere and requires little energy. Effective extraction.

Romero Calvo said: “The physical principles behind all this are well known in the physics community, but almost no one has developed its application in space.” It is subversive and will greatly expand the radius of human space exploration and provide greater possibilities for large-scale crowds of interstellar travel.


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