Energy on Mars

In order to successfully colonise Mars we’ll need access to plenty of energy. On Earth, access to abundant fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) enabled the industrial revolution and continues to power human civilisation into the 21st century. Energy is necessary for heating, lighting, refrigeration, cooking and other essential basic functions of society, but perhaps most importantly it’s required by both machinery and electronics, enabling mass production, transportation, communications, computing, and all manner of automation. Modern technological society is largely dependent on machinery and electronics, and we can safely assume this will also be the case on Mars. In fact, energy requirements per person will be greater on Mars than on Earth due to the need for ECLSS (Environment Control and Life Support Systems) in habitats, pressurised vehicles and marssuits.

On Earth, the bulk of our energy comes from fossil fuels and biomass. However, as far as we know, Mars has neither of these. Mars also has no active hydrosphere, which also rules out hydroelectric, wave, tidal, and ocean thermal energy.

Here’s a breakdown of energy supply on Earth in 2010:

Oil 32.4%
Coal 27.3%
Natural gas 21.4%
Biomass 10.0%
Nuclear fission 5.7%
Hydroelectric 2.3%
Other renewables 0.9%

Thus, we’re currently obtaining over 80% of our energy from fossil fuels, but less than 1% from “Other renewables”, which includes solar, wind, wave, tidal, geothermal and ocean thermal energy sources.

On Mars, all of these are ruled out except for:

  • nuclear fission
  • solar
  • wind
  • areothermal (this is the equivalent term for “geothermal” on Mars)

Other options that are yet to be developed but may prove practical for Mars include:

  • nuclear fusion
  • space solar power

Because most energy on Earth is currently obtained from fossil fuels, most of our experience and technology related to energy production is based on harnessing these fuels. Therefore, it may at first seem like a serious challenge for settlers that Mars doesn’t provide these.

Many people say climate change is bad, but aside from all the likely death, destruction and general pandemonium, it’s also driving many positive changes on our planet. One of these, which we’re currently observing, is massive investment in new, cleaner forms of energy production.

This increase in investment and innovation is also being driven by the stark and somewhat worrying reality that fossil fuels are being consumed more rapidly than they’re being discovered or extracted, and certainly far more rapidly than they’re being made, which takes millions of years. If current demand for oil remains static, we have an estimated 120 years worth remaining on Earth. However, demand for oil is, of course, escalating exponentially as a function of both population increase and economic and technological development across the globe, and, without an effective replacement, world oil reserves could potentially be fully depleted before the end of the 21st century.

Therefore, the business case for investment in solar, wind and other renewable energy sources is solid, with about $257 billion being invested in 2011, increasing by around 20% or more per year. This is very fortunate for those of with our sights on Mars, because much of this newly developing technology can be used on the red planet.

Investment in nuclear fission has been low since the Chernobyl accident in 1986; however, there has been a renewed interest in nuclear fission lately as several environmentalists have spoken out in support of it. This may seem counter-intuitive; however, nuclear is currently viewed as less of an environmental hazard than fossil fuels, mainly because our most pressing environmental concern is currently the high concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide caused by fossil fuel combustion. Although most environmentalists would much prefer global civilisation to be 100% powered by renewable energy sources, many experts consider it unlikely that renewables can be scaled up from their current low level quickly enough to prevent catastrophic global warming, especially considering the lack of cost-effective and environmentally-friendly energy storage solutions.

Nuclear fission is a more mature technology than most renewables, and proven as a source of cheap, abundant, continuous energy. There is still a broad public perception that nuclear fission is unreasonably dangerous, however, and that nuclear waste is also a serious environmental concern. However, several new “Generation IV” reactor designs currently in development do not have the issues that can cause Chernobyl-style disasters. One particularly promising type is the LFTR (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor), which uses thorium as fuel. Thorium is much more abundant than uranium (also on the Moon and Mars), and therefore cheaper, and LFTR’s cannot melt down and can actually consume existing nuclear waste as fuel. Nonetheless, regardless of safety protocols or design, any type of fission reactor can potentially break and radioactively contaminate the environment, whether due to design or manufacturing error, operational mismanagement, natural disaster or warfare.

The most likely outcome will be that the 21st century will see massive investment in both nuclear fission as well as all major forms of renewables, and these will both gradually replace fossil fuels. If these energy sources are scaled up and deployed rapidly enough, it may even be possible that fossil fuels do not become fully depleted, at least not in the near future. The insane practice of fracking can stop, and oil can be reserved for making plastics, synthetic rubber, lubricants and other materials.

Fission may get us out of trouble in the near term, but will probably be phased out during the second half of the 21st century, as renewables such as solar, wind, wave, tidal, geothermal, ocean thermal and space solar power become increasingly advanced, widely deployed and cheap, and present a safer and cleaner option.

With regard to nuclear fusion, if developed, it’s my opinion that it will never be needed on Earth once renewable energy is abundant and cheap, which seems likely to happen sooner. However, fusion energy could prove ideal for spaceships, space stations, and lunar, asteroidal or other extraterrestrial settlements with few renewable energy options.

The current shift away from the use of fossil fuels towards nuclear fission and renewables on Earth is a boon for Mars settlers, as we can take advantage of the innovation and technological developments in this area. The development of energy production systems on Mars may even closely mirror that of Earth, with fission playing an important role in the early stages of Mars exploration and settlement, providing, as it does, an abundant supply of continuous energy, but ultimately being phased out in favour of renewable sources. As infrastructure and manufacturing capabilities are developed on Mars, including the ability to 3D print photovoltaic cells and wind turbines; as possible areothermal energy sources are discovered and exploited; and as the technology required to tap renewable energy sources and to store energy are improved and optimised for Mars, it’s reasonable to expect an eventual abandonment of nuclear fission in favour of clean, simple and safe renewables.


13 thoughts on “Energy on Mars

  1. An exercise bike connected to a generator might work in a pinch, I think that a healthy individual could peddle at a rate of 200 to 300 watts. I also like the ideal of the LFTR (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor), I read in Popular Science a while back that the British were making some progress in this area, reactors that would fit in a typical house living room, and eventually down to the size of a suit case.

  2. We have to hope that as we develop into a space-faring civilization -where the main scene of our growth is in space, and the Human economy is over-run and driven by the huge wealth of the space economy, we’ll not worry about scraping by with things that are too over-complex for what they offer.
    Space solar power, asteroid resources, and power beaming would seem to be the way of the far future.
    We can’t bet on breakthroughs. We’ve been a decade or so from the breakthrough in fusion, for the last 40 years. As far as we know for sure, a sustained fusion reaction can’t take place in anything smaller than a star.

    1. I agree, John. Fusion has been in development for a long time. I hope it’s possible, because it would produce abundant energy for millennia, and could help fund space settlement by providing a market for lunar helium-3. If it comes along, we’ll use it, of course, but we don’t need it to reach Mars, and there’s no need to wait for it. I wouldn’t even be surprised if viable zero-point energy devices become commercially available before fusion.

  3. Nuclear is nice, but you’all are overlooking the obvious. Mars can be the Saudi Arabia of hydro electric power!

    You have plenty of deep trenches, and plenty of permafrost. Use ATV’s to haul the polar permafrost to the trenches, at first, (until a railway can be built), such as Val Marinaris, and dump over the side in a large water main (24″), once the permafrost has been electro heated to a slush, to power a dynamo.

    It can be preheated by any preference, including methane, under clear and vast Mylar tents (solar warming), or nuclear. But once underway, electro heating can take over, so it stays fluid until it leaves the system.

    All your raw materials, such as iron ore are readily available, to draw your first wire (or upgrade to copper), to create the dynamo housing, and your iron water mains to feed the system (preferably insulated to help prevent flash freezing.). Possible output power only depends on the size of your dynamos. If you need MORE power, build another dynamo next to it, etc.

    You could be producing a billion watts of output power at a single station. (A system of dynamos.) Use siphon tech if you have a problem with the especially deep trenches. (Put the dynamo on top of the trench and throw the slush over the cliff in a water main.)

    8 miles at Val Marinaris is effectively 11,400 ft of Earth-like head pressure, if your dynamo is placed at the bottom…which is probably beyond our technology to handle. Therefore…there is more power in hydro than Martians could ever need for at least a century or more, without worrying about other renewables or nuclear waste.

    Don’t worry about running out of permafrost, it sublimates and heads back to the poles in the winter.

    1. Without having run the numbers, this seems to me one of the more complicated and least efficient options available. A huge amount of energy would be required to mine permafrost or ice, transport it to a trench, melt it and create a waterfall to generate electricity. It wouldn’t work all the time anyway because during the winter the water would snap-freeze on exposure to the atmosphere. No, I can’t see this idea working.

      1. Interesting. Never heard of this before. I tend to agree with Mossy, I would be surprised if the power generated was greater than the power required to mine, transport & melt the permafrost.

        Also, your going to have to deal with head loss which is going to put a maximum on your net head.

        And why dynamos instead of turbines? Aren’t the dynamos going to be less efficient?

  4. My idea of vast hydro power systems on Mars also creates a Martian civilization in a hurry. A minor nuclear reactor will hold back progress, as each fabrication could take a long time. Hydro power is a technology we already understand, and they can fabricate on demand, without waiting for complicated clearances.

    It creates 1,000’s of jobs in support, as fast as those in charge care to build the supporting structures, and new interns land to begin new jobs in a steady flow. With 78,000 who have already expressed interest in going…I’m sure there will be no shortage of enthusiastic available labor.

    You’ll eventually have colonies that need to include housing for 1,000’s, that go to work to run the power plants, smelt ores, or related nearby industries that will migrate to such vast available power. Once underway, the colony will need everything we experience on Earth, malls, schools, shops, parks (under domes), offices for doctors or lawyers, engineering offices, plus tourism…which includes hotels and trips of interest on Mars, besides the scientists.

    What almost unlimited available electric power for displays and modern entertainment, the casinos on Mars and play areas, will make Las Vegas look like Kindergarten, which will attract even MORE people.

    I know others envision this, with nuclear or solar power…which can help, and for much smaller settlements…but for serious power in copious amounts, hydro power is it, because the cost benefits and technology are well understood already, and conventional tools can be used to fabricate the plants from the word go. We only need to migrate our know how. Very little has to be re invented.

  5. If work I mean put a chunk a demand on and the inverted market
    that we’re going to see a lot more of them around. The back wall of the North Carolina biofuels center’s lobby is dominated by a large timeline, beginning with the General Assembly’s 2006 recognition of the state’s investor-owned and municipal utilities.

  6. I think the only way an idea like hydro-power would work on Mars, is if a monster size asteroid/moon entered into a low Mars orbit, that would create a massive amount of tidal friction on the inner core of Mars, the core would theoretically heat up causing the permafrost to melt, even co2 to out gas from the regolith. This would help thicken the Mars atmosphere, melting the co2 and possibly water trap at the north and south poles, creating the possibility of surface water, but there is no guarantee that enough water would melt for hydro power. However today the temperature drops to 60 to 70 Celsius below zero at night, even at the equator, so any water on Mars today is either frozen or in the atmosphere.

    Another interesting effect a monster asteroid may have is the tidal friction that would happen heating up the core of Mars, that would create a much need magnetic field around Mars that would help protect the atmosphere from being strip away and also protect astronauts or Marsnauts on the surface from solar radiation, a thicker atmosphere may also stop some cosmic radiation.

    But just how big would a monster asteroid or moon would have to be?

  7. 50% Mud/ice is located at around 30 degrees latitude around the northern hemisphere. Solar powered drones can roll along preprogrammed paths (to save on steerage times and energy costs), and deliver to the northern part of Val Marinaris Trench, or any closer cliff. Heaters onboard a robot dump truck can prewarm permafrost…but most thawing will take place under clear domes, using solar heating.

    The energy, once the equipment is paid for, is essentially free.
    Robots can maintain it, with min human intervention.

    Delivery does not have to be constant, especially in the early years, when battery power with Solar Cells will keep available power max’d. The water collected can be held in a protected reservoir. But a nice experimental hydro plant would be nice.

    It only has to be a slush to use for hydro power. Fully liquefied is not necessary, but preferred. The abundant muddy slag can be used for Adobe, and the processed water derived on the side…for drinking and manufacturing.

    As super insulated water mains are developed, the permafrost can be mined locally and pumped to its destination, without freezing, using Solar Powered pumps.

    There is evidence of brackish water (that won’t flash freeze) on Mars from observation at the tops of craters, that carves its own path as it thaws in Mars Spring. And the permafrost at 30 degrees latitude, accessible at only about 100 miles Northeast of Olympus Mons, has perchlorates…a natural anti freeze, which can be taken out easily for drinking water, so flash freezing is not a real problem.

    Besides…MOVING water, down a watermain, does NOT freeze. The entire hydro electric process will take place INDOORS until it exits via the watermain a few 1,000 ft down the side of a cliff. The further the DROP, the greater the siphon effect will be, and is just as powerful as a nuclear plant without the expense.

    Dynamos or turbines, take your pick… whatever works best. Hydro power can produce the kind of industrial power needed, with less delay. Making iron wire will be uncomplicated, although copper is preferred. The extra heat generated in iron coils, might be very useful, btw, for local heater needs.

    And, it will sublimate on the canyon wall after exit, or flash into ice crystals as it falls like heavy snow. Some will sublimate to water vapor, helping form weak clouds from the site, towards the valley or trench.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s