When you’re an astronaut exploring Mars, you can’t just knock on your neighbor’s door to ask for a bowl of sugar. So NASA has challenged scientists and inventors to dream up ways of turning carbon dioxide into useful molecules, like glucose, to help those who will one day head to the Red Planet.
To win NASA's CO2 Conversion Challenge, the team or individual must show how the gas could be used to create other compounds, with a potential total prize of $1m.
On a spacecraft, room for cargo is scarce and the crew must prioritize the bare essentials. Astronauts are also short on resources like the time, water and energy needed to replicate the process through which plants make sugar-based biomaterials, which we take for granted here on Earth.
But NASA sees a goldmine in the abundance of carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere, which it hopes astronauts will be able to harvest in space with relative ease. The agency envisions the resulting technologies will see a range of products created in space, and even power microbial bioreactors.
Carbon and oxygen, which bond to form carbon dioxide, make up the molecular basis of sugars. And as glucose is the form of sugar easiest to metabolize, it is therefore the most efficient to convert into energy.
Those who wish to take up the gauntlet have until 24 January 2019 to register and until 28 February to send their entries.
To claim the total $1m prize money, entrants will have to make it through two phases. The first, and current, concept phase carries a prize of $250,000. The demonstration phase comes with a $750,000 prize. For phase one, NASA will award up to five teams $50,000 for their blueprints for a physical-chemical way of turn carbon dioxide into glucose.
To make it to the second phase, the ideas must be proven to be viable - but other rules for phase two have not been decided.
The CO2 Conversion Challenge is part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program, run by the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.
Of course, the winning technologies won’t just be useful on the Red Planet. Carbon dioxide is abundant on Earth, too, and the approaches put forward could turn both waste and atmospheric carbon dioxide into resources back home.
“Enabling sustained human life on another planet will require a great deal of resources and we cannot possibly bring everything we will need. We have to get creative,” Monsi Roman, program manager of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program, said in a statement. "If we can transform an existing and plentiful resource like carbon dioxide into a variety of useful products, the space – and terrestrial – applications are endless.”