Oxygen Supply in Space Thanks to Neodymium Magnets
October 2022 | News
Researchers find a method to produce oxygen in space using super magnets. These could replace the centrifuges that have been used so far.
Oxygen is important for crewed spaceflight, not only so astronauts can breathe, but also for propulsion systems. Particularly on long-haul missions, the demand is so great that it cannot be carried along but must instead be produced on-site in weightlessness. Until now, oxygen production under these special conditions has been complex and resource-intensive. However, an international team of researchers has recently achieved a breakthrough with a much more efficient process. In the method they have developed, supermagnets containing the rare earth element neodymium help to extract oxygen from water.
Zero Gravity Makes Oxygen Harvesting More Difficult
Water is easier to transport into space than oxygen. For this reason, it is obtained on the ISS space station, for example, by electrolysis of water. This splits water into two components, oxygen and hydrogen. Under the Earth’s gravity conditions, the oxygen gas would rise to the surface as bubbles. This effect can be observed in everyday life with carbonated beverages such as cola or lemonade. In microgravity, however, the gas remains trapped in the liquid. Therefore, centrifuges are taking over to squeeze out the oxygen. However, this method has the disadvantage that it requires a lot of energy and space for the machines.
Rare Earth Magnets Extract Oxygen from Water
Scientists led by Álvaro Romero-Calvo of the U.S. University of Colorado Boulder have therefore been looking for a more efficient way to isolate oxygen, experimenting with magnetic forces. They immersed neodymium magnets, among the strongest in the world, in various aqueous solutions. To simulate zero-gravity conditions in space, the tests took place in a 145-meter drop tower in Bremen, Germany. This is operated by the Center for Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM). The tests with the supermagnets, which were preceded by years of theoretical research, proved to be extremely successful. The results were published in Nature’s npj Microgravity journal. According to the scientists, this could be the decisive step towards making longer journeys into space possible: The new method simplifies transport, conserves resources and guarantees a reliable oxygen supply.
Wide Range of Applications for SuperMagnets in Industry
Oxygen extraction is one example of many for the extensive applications of neodymium magnets. Whether in the rotors of wind turbines, in magnetic resonance tomographs, the motors of electric cars or loudspeakers – the magnets are suitable for applications in many and various industrial sectors. In addition to the rare earth element neodymium, they contain iron and boron (chemically NdFeB) as basic materials. In contrast to electromagnets or ferrite magnets, they are characterized by an enormous holding force with a small size. They can carry up to 600 times their own weight. This qualifies them as super magnets. It can be assumed that their magnetic force will continue to increase thanks to intensive research work, as shown in an earlier blog post. The number of applications and the associated demand for neodymium and other rare earths could also increase.
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