The Sabatier reaction or Sabatier process was discovered by the French chemist Paul Sabatier in the 1910s. It involves the reaction of hydrogen with carbon dioxide at elevated temperatures (optimal 300–400 °C) and pressures in the presence of a nickel catalyst to produce methane and water. Optionally ruthenium on alumina (aluminum oxide) makes a more efficient catalyst. It is described by the following exothermic reaction:
- CO2 + 4 H2 + energy → CH4 + 2 H2O
- ∆H = -165.0 kJ/mol
- (some initial energy/heat is required to start the reaction)
It has been proposed in a renewable energy dominated energy system to use the excess electricity generated by wind, solar photovoltaic, hydro, marine current, etc. to make methane (natural gas). The methane can be injected into the existing gas network which in many countries has one or two years of gas storage capacity. The methane can then be used on demand to generate electricity (and heat—combined heat and power) overcoming low points of renewable energy production. The process is hydrolysis of water by electricity to create hydrogen (which can partly be used directly in fuel cells) and the addition of carbon dioxide CO2 (Sabatier process) to create methane. The CO2 can be extracted from the air or fossil fuel waste gases by the amine process amongst many others. It is a low CO2 system and has similar efficiencies of today's energy system. A 250kW demonstration plant was ready in 2012 in Germany.
International Space Station life support
Oxygen generators on board the International Space Station produce oxygen from water using electrolysis, the hydrogen produced was previously discarded into space. As astronauts consume oxygen, carbon dioxide is produced which must then be removed from the air and discarded as well. This approach required copious amounts of water to be regularly transported to the space station for oxygen generation in addition to that used for human consumption, hygiene, and other uses—a luxury that will not be available to future long duration missions beyond low Earth orbit.
NASA is using the Sabatier reaction to recover water from exhaled carbon dioxide and the hydrogen previously discarded from electrolysis, on the International Space Station, and possibly for future missions. The other resulting chemical, methane, is released into space. As half of the input hydrogen becomes wasted as methane, additional hydrogen is supplied from Earth to make up the difference. However, this creates a nearly-closed cycle between water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide which only requires a relatively modest amount of imported hydrogen to maintain.
Ignoring other results of respiration, this cycle looks like:
- 2 H2O → O2 + 2 H2 → (respiration) → CO2 + 2 H2 + 2 H2 (added) → 2 H2O + CH4 (discarded)
The loop could be completely closed if the waste methane was separated into its component parts by pyrolysis:
- CH4 + heat → C + 2 H2
The released hydrogen would then be recycled back into the Sabatier reactor, leaving an easily removed deposit of pyrolytic graphite. The reactor would be little more than a steel pipe, and could be periodically serviced by an astronaut where the deposit is chiselled out.
The Bosch reaction is also being investigated[by whom?] for this purpose. Though the Bosch reaction would present a completely closed hydrogen and oxygen cycle which only produces atomic carbon as waste, difficulties maintaining its higher required temperature and properly handling carbon deposits mean significantly more research will be required before a Bosch reactor could become a reality. One problem is that the production of elemental carbon tends to foul the catalyst's surface, which is detrimental to the reaction's efficiency.
Manufacturing propellant on Mars
The Sabatier reaction has been proposed as a key step in reducing the cost of manned exploration of Mars (Mars Direct) through In-Situ Resource Utilization. Hydrogen is combined with CO2 from the atmosphere, with methane then stored as fuel and the water side product electrolyzed yielding oxygen to be liquefied and stored as oxidizer and hydrogen to be recycled back into the reactor. The original hydrogen could be transported from Earth or separated from martian sources of water.
The stoichiometric ratio of oxidizer and fuel is 2:1, for an oxygen:methane engine.
CH4 + 2 O2 → CO2 + 2 H2O
However, one pass through the Sabatier reactor produces a ratio of only 1:1. More oxygen may be produced by running the water gas shift reaction in reverse, effectively extracting oxygen from the atmosphere by reducing carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide.
Another option is to make more methane than needed and pyrolyze the excess of it into carbon and hydrogen (see above section) where the hydrogen is recycled back into the reactor to produce further methane and water. In an automated system, the carbon deposit may be removed by blasting with hot Martian CO2, oxidizing the carbon into carbon monoxide, which is vented.
A fourth solution to the stoichiometry problem would be to combine the Sabatier reaction with the reverse water gas-shift reaction in a single reactor as follows:
3 CO2 + 6 H2 → CH4 + 2 CO + 4 H2O
This reaction is slightly exothermic, and when the water is electrolyzed, an oxygen to methane ratio of 2:1 is obtained.
Regardless of which method of oxygen fixation is utilized, the overall process can be summarized by the following equation.
2 H2 + 3 CO2 → CH4 + 2 O2 + 2 CO
With only the light hydrogen transported from Earth, and the heavy oxygen and carbon extracted locally, a mass leveraging of 20:1 is afforded with this scheme. This in-situ resource utilization would result in massive weight and cost savings to any proposed manned Mars or sample return missions.
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- Harding, Pete (October 09, 2010). "Soyuz TMA-01M docks with ISS as crews conduct hardware installation". NASASpaceFlight.com.
- Bryner, Jeanna (15 March 2007). "Giant Pool of Water Ice at Mars' South Pole". Space.com.