skip to primary navigationskip to content

Martian chemical engineering

last modified Mar 03, 2017 02:31 PM
in Proceedings of the Royal Society - Dr Silvana Cardoso
Martian chemical engineering

Mars; Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Chemical plants have a lot of pipes, but it turns out that nature can build pipes filled with flowing liquids just as well as chemical engineers can. Silvana Cardoso of this Department, and colleagues from NASA and Spain, have been looking at the Rio Tinto, a very acid, iron mineral rich river in southern Spain that is thought to be a similar environment to how Mars once must have been, billions of years ago before it lost its water. They have found tiny tubes, pipes in the river bed, that they think are self-assembled structures that carry liquids that deposit minerals on the river bed.

Chemical gardens grown by introducing Fe(II) salts [FeCl2·4H2O (a–c) or Fe2SO4·7H2O (d–f)] into 1 M NaOH. Three trials of each experiment are shown; photos represent 24 h of growth.

Chemical gardens, well-known from school chemistry experiments, also form self-assembled tubes surrounding liquids carrying minerals that react together to precipitate solids. The authors have grown iron oxide and iron oxyhydroxide chemical gardens and show their similarity to the tubes found in the Rio Tinto. They suggest that when environments on Mars that are thought to have been ancient water courses are examined, we should not be surprised to find similar tubular structures there, constructed not by Martians, but by nature.


The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A and is Self-assembling iron oxyhydroxide/oxide tubular structures: laboratory-grown and field examples from Rio Tinto by Laura M. Barge, Silvana S. S. Cardoso, Julyan H. E. Cartwright, Ivria J. Doloboff, Erika Flores, Elena Macías-Sánchez, C. Ignacio Sainz-Díaz and Pablo Sobrón.

Doi: 10.1098/rspa.2016.0466

(a) Map shows the location of the Rio Tinto river system and the sampling locations within southwestern Spain (inset: Iberian peninsula). (b) Palaeoterraces at Cerro Colorado. (c) Modern terraces at the source of the Rio Tinto.
Filed under: ,