Oxygen before life: Experiment creates O2 without plants

Oxygen before life: Experiment creates O2 without plants
A new experiment has shown that atmospheric oxygen can be created without plant life, possibly explaining the presence of small amounts of O2 on Mars.

A team of researchers at UC Davis, California have developed a mechanism for creating oxygen that doesn’t require photosynthesis. Using a vacuum ultraviolet laser – solar light – to irradiate carbon dioxide (CO2) in the lab, the team was able to break the CO2 apart in one step, leaving free carbon and oxygen.

Once the CO2 was broken up into carbon and oxygen, the team used an ion imaging apparatus to track the results.

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Our study has provided unambiguous experimental evidence for the formation of C + O2 photoproducts,” said Zhou Lu, a UC Davis graduate student, and lead author of the paper, which was published in the journal Science.

Scientists think this one-step process could be happening right now in the Earth’s atmosphere, as carbon dioxide increases in the region of the upper atmosphere where high energy vacuum ultraviolet light from the Sun hits Earth and other planets.

“The same process can be applied in other carbon dioxide dominated atmospheres such as Mars and Venus,” said Lu, who worked with professors in the Department of Chemistry, as well as the Earth and Planetary Sciences, according to the university’s press office.

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About one-fifth of the Earth’s atmosphere is made up of oxygen generated from plants through photosynthesis, but scientists have often wondered whether there was oxygen in the early atmosphere before life existed.

More study into the matter will be required, though, since the presence of oxygen on another planet may not necessarily mean life exists. However, the study has just presented a way for “making’" oxygen in space or on other planets.

The work was funded by NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the US Department of Energy.