Marshall Space Flight Center, Alabama
Converting in-situ resources such as CO2, which is the main component of the Mars atmosphere, into methane for rocket propellants can significantly reduce the cost and risk of human exploration while at the same time enabling new mission concepts and long-term exploration sustainability. Methanation of CO2, also called a Sabatier reaction, is hence a key enabling technology required for sustainable and affordable human exploration of Mars.
A Sabatier process has been developed that combines the advantages of novel catalytic approaches and fast reaction kinetics of plasma processes to address the performance and durability limitations of the current reactor design for low-temperature operation, resulting in improved energy efficiency, improved durability for long mission times, and improved kinetics at low-pressure conditions. The novel processes produce higher yields of methane than the conventional process, and at lower temperatures of operation. In addition, a scalable, thin channel reactor design has been developed that addresses the thermal management issues to which a traditional Sabatier reaction is prone.
The Sabatier technology can be used for CO2 sequestration, or as an intermediate processing technique for fuel or chemical production in the commercial market. The primary and sub-markets for this technology include CO2 sequestration with SNG (synthetic natural gas) formation for a number of areas including power plants and the petrochemical industry; CO removal (specific methanation) technology for purification of reformate or hydrogen streams from fuel reformation; and reformation processes such as dry reforming of methane with CO2. The plasma-assisted catalytic reactor design has several applications in gas purification (impurity removal from biogas, natural gas, LPG, etc.), diesel exhaust gas purification for NOx and SOx abatement, fuel reformation for hydrogen generation, and sluggish catalytic reactions requiring high activation energies.