Air is valuable in space because it is required for astronauts to explore its vastness. Currently, astronauts are supplied with air via the electrolysis of water. Because I composed water of hydrogen and oxygen, electrolysis can break this bond and isolate the oxygen gas (via NASA). Water is less expensive to send up to astronauts than tanks of air. These are also available, but electrolysis is the primary method of producing air (via The Conversation).
This method, however, has the disadvantage of requiring a lot of energy. To work under the conditions of microgravity, which causes a lack of buoyancy, making it more difficult for gasses to rise, techniques are required to compensate. Centrifuges and rocket firing are two examples. But what if all of that they could avoid in favor of a more environmentally friendly solution? A study published recently in NPJ Microgravity proposed using magnetic forces to extract oxygen gas from liquids. This solves the buoyancy issue in microgravity with no additional resource-intensive fixes.
How magnets could work to give astronauts air
Buoyancy is lacking in space. This is a problem when we want gasses to form from liquids. On Earth, it causes buoyancy by the force of gravity, which allows matter of different densities to fall or rise when mixed. However, the microgravity of space does not permit this type of buoyancy, making it more difficult to move the oxygen required by astronauts out of the water.
These experiments show that a much more efficient method of producing air for astronauts is possible, and they may allow us to travel even further into space.
What this means for space travel
NASA published a paper in 2016 stating that the current method of producing oxygen on the International Space Station is unsuitable for supporting astronauts on a journey to Mars. The optimal form of oxygen generation would have a lower mass and be reliable, safe, and maintainable. The current method would not be sustainable on a trip to Mars, which, as mentioned in the paper, would be a very different endeavor than creating air on the ISS.
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This new avenue of using magnetism could be a potential method of creating air for a Mars journey. According to Popular Science, using magnets makes it easier to direct where gasses in liquids go, allowing for greater efficiency. This could also make it more reliable and take up less space, both of which are desirable qualities for an air generation method identified by NASA. Overall, this is exciting research that could bring the possibility of humans visiting Mars closer to reality.