Chemistry student receives support for Mars research – University of Copenhagen

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31 May 2011

Chemistry student receives support for Mars research

YOUNG TALENT

Theoretical chemistry studies of complexes in the Martian atmosphere may reveal whether or not the planet houses life. A University of Copenhagen student to receive 100,000 kroner to develop a new measurement technique.

Computerchemistry Masters student Kristian Barüel ØrnsøNobody knows whether or not life on Mars actually exists. The discovery of methane gas suggests that it might. However, it is tremendously difficult to measure whether the planet's methane is produced by living organisms. Now, a student at the Department of Chemistry has received one of Denmark's largest student grants ever to develop a new measurement technique.

Kristian Barüel Ørnsø, a master's student in computational chemistry, will receive the 100,000 grant from the Oticon Foundation on July 1 for preparatory Ph.D. studies which will serve to help him reveal the red planet's innermost secrets. But first, he needs to wrap up his graduate studies at the Department of Chemistry

Investigating climate friendly biofuel

Through his thesis, Kristian Barüel Ørnsø has been studying a theoretical chemistry tool called the Density Functional Theory (DFT). Although he intends to deploy the tool to investigate the Martian atmosphere when he gets to his Ph.D. project, the method is also able to be used a little closer to home, here on Earth.

"DFT is one of the most effective theoretical tools used to calculate chemical compounds found in the atmosphere. Therefore, it can be used to predict how to best to produce climate-friendly and less polluting biofuels."

Kristian Barûel Ørnsø, Masters student, chemistry

- DFT is one of the most efficient theoretical tools used to calculate chemical compounds found in the atmosphere. Therefore, it can be used to predict how to best to produce climate-friendly and less polluting biofuels, explains Ørnsø. Indeed, this is exactly what he will be investigating and developing in his thesis work.nbsp;

Need for new computational techniques

Should Kristian Barüel Ørnsø's Ph.D. proceed, he plans to offer his capabilities to the 2016 EXOMARS expedition during which – and among other things - measurements of the Martian atmosphere using infrared radiation will take place.

The relative measures of methane and other gases such as ethane, formaldehyde and methanol may indicate whether Martian methane is a by-product of bacterial flatulence or created through other chemical processes. However, ninety-nine percent of the Martian atmosphere is composed of carbon-dioxide, nitrogen and argon. Separating test results for methane from the one percent that is oxygen, water vapour, neon, krypton, xenon and ozone is challenging enough. So using measurements to say something about whether methane comes from life or not is nearly impossible using current techniques. A need exists for more advanced computational techniques to sort data from measurement results. DFT, in combination with more advanced techniques, offers a promising start in that direction.

Potential applications take a back seat for a theoretical chemist like Ørnsø. He “just” wants to develop a technique that can predict how different substances decay in the atmosphere. But the theoretical insights can also be used on Mars, on Earth and in combustion engines of the future.

The Oticon grant will be awarded on July 1.