Professor Khellil Sefiane of Edinburgh University has developed a project with colleagues at Northumbria University that has produced a breakthrough sublimation engine that could one day generate energy on Mars.
The new engine, dubbed the Leidenfrost engine, uses sublimation – the changing of a solid directly into a gas – to drive a generator. The project uses dry ice as its fuel which has created interest in using this technology to power projects on Mars where the substance is common.
Dr Rodrigo Ledesma-Aguilar, co-author on the paper, said: “Carbon dioxide plays a similar role on Mars as water does on Earth. It is a widely available resource which undergoes cyclic phase changes under the natural Martian temperature variations.
“Perhaps future power stations on Mars will exploit such a resource to harvest energy as dry-ice blocks evaporate, or to channel the chemical energy extracted from other carbon-based sources, such as methane gas.
“One thing is certain; our future on other planets depends on our ability to adapt our knowledge to the constraints imposed by strange worlds, and to devise creative ways to exploit natural resources that do not naturally occur here on Earth.”
But the breakthrough doesn’t just make space-travel and colonisation more sustainable, the unique low friction nature of the engine could have other applications. The concept is could be potentially relevant in challenging situations such as deep drilling, outer space exploration or micro-mechanical manipulation.
Professor Glen McHale, co-author of the paper, said: “This is the starting point of an exciting avenue of research in smart materials engineering. In the future, Leidenfrost-based devices could find applications in wide ranging fields, spanning from frictionless transport to outer space exploration.”
View video of the Leidenfrost ‘engine’ at work