Martians hunt gives boost for fuel

The world’s fuel crisis could be eased thanks to UK space scientists who have found a way to get petrol out of sand. Experts at Imperial College London made the breakthrough when developing an alien-seeking experiment that will be carried on a NASA mission to Mars.

Mars photographed by the Hubble space telescopeThey originally devised a way to extract organic material from martian rocks to discover whether life has ever developed there. But the team discovered the same technique can be used on Earth to process dense deposits of rock mixed with bitumen called tar sands.

Until now, fuel has only been able to be produced from tar sands using vast supplies of water which then remain heavily contaminated for years.

The UK scientists, led by Professor Mark Sephton from Imperial’s Department of Earth Science and Engineering, found that methods used by instruments to be flown to Mars in 2018 can be adapted to extract fuel cheaply.

The research, funded by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council, looks set to help solve the global problem of energy supply. There are deposits of tar sands in many countries including the USA, Russia and Africa, but they are found in extremely large quantities in Canada and Venezuela.

Professor Sephton told Skymania News: “We were asked to provide a single solvent to wash out any organisms on Mars. We discovered that if we added an agent that is also found in ice cream to water, it acts as an emulsifier and separates the organic material from the water.

“We realised that the same process could be adapted to on a much larger scale to blast hot water at the tar sands. The emulsifier quickly separates out the petrol – a process that used to take years.”

Last year, a European probe, Mars Express, identified regions of Mars that could have been home to life. And in January, NASA revealed that plumes of methane had been detected that might have a biological origin.

Picture: A photo of Mars taken by the Hubble Space Telescope (NASA/ESA).

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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