Magnets—how do they work, right?
From treating various ailments to perpetual motion machines, it seems like magnets are the answer to almost anything. But all hokum aside, scientists are seriously considering using magnets to help astronauts breathe in space.
European researchers recently published a paper that looks at using magnets to facilitate producing oxygen from water for astronauts to use. The principle of chemically breaking down water into its constituent elements of oxygen and hydrogen, called electrolysis, is a well-used industrial process but physically separating the two elements is a bit more difficult in space.
“Imagine a glass of fizzy soda. On Earth, the bubbles of CO2 quickly float to the top, but in the absence of gravity, those bubbles have nowhere to go. They instead stay suspended in the liquid,” said a press release from the UK’s University of Warwick, one of the institutions involved in the research. And just like a fizzy soda, you can separate the gases from the liquid by shaking the container—which, for astronauts, means using a motor-powered centrifuge that’s heavy, bulky, and energy-consuming.
However, researchers from the University of Warwick as well as from University of Colorado Boulder in the US and Freie Universität Berlin in Germany have found that ordinary neodymium magnets could be used to induce a weak and temporary magnetic field in the gases—a phenomenon called “diamagnetism”—so that the gases could be easily dislodged and separated from the liquid without a centrifuge. The effect is very small, but could be potentially useful in space where there is less gravity to work against.