Bioengineering to help future Mars Colonies and Earth’s Global Warming

Today many aerospace industries and nations are competing in the race for Mars. Some with a plan for crew flybys, others with short term scientific missions, and some with the higher objective of colonization of Mars. Mars, as we know, is an arid planet that cannot support life. All the necessary life support systems have to come from the Earth, which would be too expensive as we rely heavily on chemical rockets.

One of the solutions would be to manufacture the necessary raw materials like fuel, organic compounds, and drugs on Mars, maximizing the available resources on the planet. Mars has abundant carbon dioxide (about 96%) and water at its poles in the form of polar ice caps and likely frozen underground reservoirs. Chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has designed a hybrid system using nanowires and bacteria to harness sunlight, carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and, water to create the building blocks for organic material.

The system is made by packing Sporomusa ovata bacteria into a forest of nanowires that are one-hundredth the width of human air. The nanowires would absorb sunlight, generate electrons that the bacteria take, and converts two carbon dioxide molecules and water into Acetate and Oxygen.

A scanning electron micrograph of a nanowire-bacteria hybrid operating at the optimal acidity, or pH, for bacteria to pack tightly around the nanowires. Close packing gives a more efficient conversion of solar energy to carbon bonds. The scale bar is 1/100 millimeter or 10 microns. | Image: UC Berkeley image by Peidong Yang

Acetate is one of the building blocks for many organic compounds, including fuels, drugs, and plastics. We can manufacture other organic compounds from acetate using bioengineering. Oxygen, which is the by-product of this process, can replenish the artificial atmosphere for the colonists. The possibilities are endless.

According to the project leader Peidong Yang, when they tried to pack the bacteria into nanowires to increase efficiency, they faced a problem of elevated pH level of the surrounding water. This increase in pH level (or decrease in acidity) caused the bacteria to detach themselves from the nanowires, causing a break in the circuit. They eventually found a solution to keep the acidity slightly higher and increase efficiency. Their system has a record efficiency of 3.6%, which means 3.6% of solar energy gets converted and stored.

Professor Yang and his team continue to tweak the system to improve efficiency and to manufacture other organic compounds like acetic acid. This system can be a solution to address our global warming issue by absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide and converting them into organic compounds. Professor Yang and his team are also working on other systems to produce sugars and carbohydrates efficiently, which, one day, can provide food to the colonists.

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