In a first, researchers produce oxygen from magnets for space exploration

“Efficient phase separation in reduced gravitational environments is an obstacle for human space exploration and known since the first flights to space in the 1960s,” said Dr. Katharina Brinkert of the University of Warwick Department of Chemistry Center for Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM).

“This phenomenon is a particular challenge for the life support system onboard spacecraft and the International Space Station (ISS) as oxygen for the crew is produced in water electrolyzer systems and requires separation from the electrode and liquid electrolyte,”

Brinkert concluded that the new method could “have tremendous consequences for the further development of phase separation systems, such as for long-term space missions.”

The research was first published in Nature’s affiliate npj Microgravity journal.

Study abstract:

The absence of strong buoyancy forces severely complicates the management of multiphase flows in microgravity. Different types of space systems, ranging from in-space propulsion to life support, are negatively impacted by this effect. Multiple approaches have been developed to achieve phase separation in microgravity, whereas they usually lack the robustness, efficiency, or stability that is desirable in most applications. Complementary to existing methods, the use of magnetic polarization has been recently proposed to passively induce phase separation in electrolytic cells and other two-phase flow devices. This article illustrates the dia- and paramagnetic phase separation mechanism on MilliQ water, an aqueous MnSO4 solution, lysogeny broth, and olive oil using air bubbles in a series of drop tower experiments. Expressions for the magnetic terminal bubble velocity are derived and validated and several wall–bubble and multi-bubble magnetic interactions are reported. Ultimately, the analysis demonstrates the feasibility of the dia- and paramagnetic phase separation approach, providing a key advancement for the development of future space systems.

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