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Robotic AI chemist could make oxygen on Mars

Machine analyzes meteorites to predict over 3 million water-splitting catalysts, and uses experiments and machine learning to find the best one

by Prachi Patel, special to C&EN
November 17, 2023

On the right side of the image is a robotic arm coming off of a metallic box. The arm is articulated and has a black nozzle at the end that hovers over a rack of small glass bottles.
Credit: Jun Jiang
After identifying over 3 million potential catalysts based on six metals found in Mars meteorite samples, a fully autonomous robot AI chemist prepares and tests the 243 that would best split water to make oxygen.

An artificial intelligence-powered robot has, without any human intervention, used Martian meteorites to make a catalyst that can produce oxygen from water (Nature Synthesis 2023, DOI: 10.1038/s44160-023-00424-1) . The AI chemist could operate under remote supervision from Earth aboard a rover as it collects meteorite samples.

Sending payloads to Mars is expensive, so making oxygen from local materials could be a cost-effective approach for human exploration. Recent evidence of water ice on Mars raises the prospects of generating oxygen via solar-driven water-splitting.

Credit: Qing Zhu

To develop a catalyst for those reactions, Weiwei Shang, Jun Jiang, Yi Luo and their colleagues at the University of Science and Technology of China made a machine with a robotic arm that used laser spectroscopy to analyze the composition of five meteorite samples. Its AI “brain” used theoretical simulations to suggest over 3.7 million potential catalysts based on six metals in the ores, then used machine learning to predict the 243 that would best split water. The robot synthesized and tested those candidates to come up with the best catalyst. All of this took 6 weeks; a human chemist would have taken 2,000 years.

The acids and alkali components needed to treat the meteorites could in principle be made from Martian brine, Jiang says. “For every square meter of Martian material, our robot could make nearly 60 grams of oxygen per hour.” Humans need roughly 850 g of oxygen per day on average, so the AI chemist would need only 15 h of solar power to produce enough oxygen for human survival.



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