“Methane to aromatics on Mars” (“METAMARS”) is the name of a process originally intended as a means of converting Martian atmospheric carbon dioxide to aromatic hydrocarbons and oxygen, which would be used as propellants for spacecraft to return to Earth. The process has been demonstrated on Earth on a laboratory scale. A truncated version of the process could be used on Earth to convert natural gas to aromatic hydrocarbon liquids. The greater (relative to natural gas) density of aromatic hydrocarbon liquids makes it more economically feasible to ship them to distant markets. Hence, this process makes it feasible to exploit some reserves of natural gas that, heretofore, have been considered as being “stranded” too far from markets to be of economic value.

In the full version of METAMARS, carbon dioxide is frozen out of the atmosphere and fed to a Sabatier reactor along with hydrogen (which, on Mars, would have been brought from Earth). In the Sabatier reactor, these feedstocks are converted to methane and water. The water is condensed and electrolyzed to oxygen (which is liquefied) and hydrogen (which is recycled to the Sabatier reactor). The methane is sent to an aromatization reactor, wherein, over a molybdenum-on-zeolite catalyst at a temperature 700 °C, it is partially converted into aromatic hydrocarbons (specifically, benzene, toluene, and naphthalene) along with hydrogen.

The aromatics are collected by freezing, while unreacted methane and hydrogen are separated by a membrane. Most of the hydrogen is recycled to the Sabatier reactor, while the methane and a small portion of the hydrogen are recycled to the aromatization reactor. The partial recycle of hydrogen to the aromatization reactor greatly increases the catalyst lifetime and eases its regeneration by preventing the formation of graphitic carbon, which could damage the catalyst. (Moreover, if graphitic carbon were allowed to form, it would be necessary to use oxygen to remove it.) Because the aromatics contain only one hydrogen atom per carbon atom, METAMARS produces four times as much propellant from a given amount of hydrogen as does a related process that includes the Sabatier reaction and electrolysis but not aromatization.

In the terrestrial version of METAMARS, the Sabatier reactor and electrolyzer would be omitted, while the hydrogen/ methane membrane-separating membrane, the aromatization reactor, and the unreacted-gas-recycling subsystem would be retained. Natural gas would be fed directly to the aromatization reactor. Because natural gas consists of higher hydrocarbons in addition to methane, the aromatization subprocess should be more efficient than it is for methane alone.

This work was done by Anthony C. Muscatello, Robert Zubrin, and Mark Berggren of Pioneer Astronautics for Kennedy Space Center. For further information, contact the Kennedy Innovative Partnerships Office at (321) 867-1463. KSC-12698


NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the March, 2006 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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