NASA Funds R&D Projects to Produce Fuel and Process Oxygen on the Moon and Mars

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA has selected two research and development (R&D) projects focused on producing technologies that future astronauts will need to produce fuel and oxygen on the moon and Mars.

Air Company Holdings of Brooklyn, NY, and New York University will share a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) award worth up to $150,000 to develop a system to produce kerosene-based fuels on Earth and Mars. Innosense of Torrance, Calif., and the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottsville will receive a STTR award to develop a hydrogen sensor to be used in the processing of oxygen from lunar regolith.

“Air Company has developed carbon dioxide hydrogenation technology that produces paraffins (C8-C16 and higher) in a single step using only carbon dioxide and hydrogen gases as feedstock. The hydrogen gas is sourced using renewably powered water electrolysis, thus the only byproduct of the process is the oxygen that is coproduced from the electrolyzer. Coupling this system with direct air capture technology, for which we have a patent pending on a synthetic carbonic anhydrase analog to increase sorption efficacy, enables production of kerosene-based fuels using only air, water, and renewable electricity,” the company said in its proposal summary.

“Our technology can be used by NASA on Earth, as a method of producing sustainable RP-1 as a drop-in replacement for the fossil fuels currently used as rocket propellant. Additionally, this technology can be used on Mars to produce a stable and storable fuel in-situ, using only the Martian atmosphere, water, and solar photovoltaic electricity. This fuel could be used to power habitats on Mars, used as rocket propellant for a return trip to Earth, or used as a chemical feedstock for further in-situ resource utilization,” the summary added.

InnoSense and UVA are focused on developing advanced sensor technology for the in-situ monitoring of hydrogen gas within high-pressure oxygen streams.

“It is a critical safety component for the successful operation of regenerative fuel cells (RFCs) and in situ resource utilization (ISRU) systems. There, water undergoes electrolysis to generate hydrogen and oxygen for propulsion or energy storage. InnoSense LLC (ISL) in collaboration with University of Virginia (UVA), will develop an innovative nanomaterial‑enabled H2 sensor (H2SENTM) based on ISL’s patented microelectronic device platform,” the proposal summary said.

“During human exploration missions, H2SEN will: (1) provide accurate and real-time hydrogen concentration monitoring, and (2) ensure the safe operation of regenerative fuel cells (RFCs) and in situ resource utilization (ISRU) systems for mission success. H2SEN’s versatility can be adapted to serve as general hydrogen leak detector or monitor other analytes toward meeting NASA needs,” the document added.

Summaries of the projects are below.

Single-step Production of Kerosene-based Fuels from Carbon Dioxide and Hydrogen
Subtopic Title: Climate Enhancing Resource Utilization

Air Company Holdings Inc.
Brooklyn, NY

New York University
New York, NY

Principal Investigator: Stafford Sheehan

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 3
End: 5

Duration: 13 months

Technical Abstract

Air Company has developed carbon dioxide hydrogenation technology that produces paraffins (C8-C16 and higher) in a single step using only carbon dioxide and hydrogen gases as feedstock. The hydrogen gas is sourced using renewably powered water electrolysis, thus the only byproduct of the process is the oxygen that is coproduced from the electrolyzer. Coupling this system with direct air capture technology, for which we have a patent pending on a synthetic carbonic anhydrase analog to increase sorption efficacy, enables production of kerosene-based fuels using only air, water, and renewable electricity.

Air Company has demonstrated this process at the pilot scale, producing a metric ton of products per week and operating for over 8,600 operating hours in 2021. In this proposal, we plan to use our existing data and expertise, as well as collect new experimental data, to construct the process models and provide NASA with mass and energy balance information, system energy consumption, mass, and volume, sensitivity to varied carbon dioxide feedstocks for applications on Earth and Mars, detailed descriptions of each subcomponent of the process, and a thorough risk analysis for deployment on Earth and Mars.

Together with Modestino Lab at New York University, we will further provide detailed engineering models, materials sizing, and kinetic modeling for the key components of the system, specifically the carbon dioxide hydrogenation reactor. At the end of this STTR project, the technical feasibility of deploying this technology on Earth and Mars will be thoroughly assessed and delivered to NASA.

Potential NASA Applications

Our technology can be used by NASA on Earth, as a method of producing sustainable RP-1 as a drop-in replacement for the fossil fuels currently used as rocket propellant. Additionally, this technology can be used on Mars to produce a stable and storable fuel in-situ, using only the Martian atmosphere, water, and solar photovoltaic electricity. This fuel could be used to power habitats on Mars, used as rocket propellant for a return trip to Earth, or used as a chemical feedstock for further in-situ resource utilization.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Air Company is currently pursuing this technology for the production of sustainable aviation fuel, to help address the greenhouse gas emissions of the aviation industry. Further applications of the technology can be used to produce virtually any fuel or chemical feedstock that is currently made from fossil fuels on Earth, replacing the fossil-derived fuels and chemicals with air-derived ones.

Nanomaterials Based in situ Hydrogen Sensor for Oxygen Process Streams
Subtopic Title: Advanced Concepts for Lunar and Martian Propellant Production, Storage, Transfer, and Usage

Innosense, LLC
Torrance, Calif.

Rector & Visitors of the University of Virginia
Charlottesville, Va.

Principal Investigator: Dr. Yifan Tang

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 2
End: 3

Duration: 13 months

Technical Abstract

NASA needs an advanced sensing technology for in-situ monitoring of hydrogen (H2) gas within high-pressure oxygen (O2) streams. It is a critical safety component for the successful operation of regenerative fuel cells (RFCs) and in situ resource utilization (ISRU) systems. There, water undergoes electrolysis to generate hydrogen and oxygen for propulsion or energy storage. InnoSense LLC (ISL) in collaboration with University of Virginia (UVA), will develop an innovative nanomaterial‑enabled H2 sensor (H2SENTM) based on ISL’s patented microelectronic device platform.

This project will support NASA needs expressed in 2020 NASA Technology Taxonomy, TX03.2.2 (Electrochemical: Fuel Cells), TX07.1.3 (Resource Processing for Production of Mission Consumables) and TX14.1.1 (In-space Propellant Storage and Utilization).

In Phase I, ISL will: (1) design and fabricate the sensor with appropriate recognition structure, and (2) evaluate the sensor performance. Feasibility will be demonstrated by achieving sensitive and selective detection of H2 in the concentration range of 0-4% in oxygen background with 100% relative humidity at 250 psia. In Phase II, we will optimize the sensor design, recognition chemistry and algorithm, fabricate prototypes and perform rigorous characterizations.

Potential NASA Applications

During human exploration missions, H2SEN will: (1) provide accurate and real-time hydrogen concentration monitoring, and (2) ensure the safe operation of regenerative fuel cells (RFCs) and in situ resource utilization (ISRU) systems for mission success. H2SEN’s versatility can be adapted to serve as general hydrogen leak detector or monitor other analytes toward meeting NASA needs.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

H2SEN will have significant commercial applications in the hydrogen economy. Examples include: (1) commercial hydrogen electrolyzers, and (2) leak detector for heavy-duty fuel cell truck or hydrogen powered aviation, and marine vehicles. As spin-off applications, H2SEN can be adapted with appropriate recognition chemistry for monitoring other environmental pollutants or toxic gases.