Bacteria that break down a harmful molecule have inspired chemists to build a material that does the same, potentially yielding benefits for humans on Earth and perhaps, one day, Mars.
Used in fireworks and rocket fuels, the explosive perchlorate ion (ClO4−) disrupts thyroid function and often seeps into drinking water. Microbes living in oxygen-poor environments provide an idea for remediation: some of them breathe by splitting perchlorate into oxygen gas and harmless chloride ions.
The complex microbial machinery for this process includes an enzyme containing molybdenum atoms, which rip the first oxygen atom from perchlorate. Jinyong Liu at the University of California, Riverside, and his colleagues designed a material that also relies on molybdenum to strip oxygen from perchlorate. The researchers stabilized the molybdenum molecules by embedding them in the pores of a carbon powder, which also house palladium nanoparticles that power the entire oxygen-removal process.
Suspended in water, the powder completely degraded perchlorate in various concentrations at room temperature. The researchers hope that with further engineering, this process could help to supply oxygen on Mars, where perchlorates lace the soil.