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Lessons from Mars could help tap unconventional fuels

mars-terrainLessons learned from Europe’s next robotic mission to Mars could provide answers to the global challenge of secure energy supplies, according to researchers at the Imperial College London.

A major study by the college, funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC),is focussing on the techniques and instrumentation initially developed for ExoMars — Europe’s next robotic mission to Mars, originally set for 2016 but now due to fly on a NASA mission in 2018. The study aims to use this new technology as an inexpensive and efficient way to help process unconventional energy resources.

Researchers say their findings could potentially have an enormous impact on the UK and global economy.

“The research involves using extraction-helping materials, called surfactants, to liberate organic matter from rock in space to gain a deeper understanding into the biological environment on Mars,” said Mark Sephton, a professor with Imperial’s department of Earth science and engineering. “We aim to show that the same technique could also be used to recycle the prodigious amounts of water necessary to process tar sand deposits and turn them into conventional petroleum.”

Today, conventional crude oil is a staple energy resource accounting for over 35 per cent of the world’s energy consumption. As the demand for oil exceeds supply, however, the focus is turning toward unconventional fossil fuel deposits such as tar sands.

Extracting these unconventional fuels, upgrading them to conventional oil quality and making them commercially viable presents numerous challenges. The extraction process, for example, requires substantial amounts of water that is then left contaminated for extended periods of time.

The new Mars-mission-derived technology, Imperial researchers say, can strip such contaminated water of its oily contaminants in just hours, removing a bottleneck in the refining process.

“Our new technology is an inexpensive approach that can be used to reduce the water demand during treatment of this type of unconventional hydrocarbon deposit,” Sephton said. “Moreover, these extraction helping materials are environmentally harmless to the extent that they are edible.”

“This is a truly valuable study which will not only reveal more about our neighbour Mars, but could also deliver enormous benefits here on Earth,” said Liz Towns-Andrews, director of Knowledge Exchange at STFC, which is funding the study through its Knowledge Exchange Follow on Fund award scheme. “The new research is a direct solution to our worsening energy supply crisis and is a great example of the seamless interaction of pure and applied science with engineering to solve real world environmental and commercial issues. Professor Sephton’s work is well aligned with the current needs of industry and we believe that this ambitious project could be of great benefit to the UK economy.”

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