The quest to make fuel on Mars


The unique atmospheric and geological features on Mars allow for in-situ production of methalox (liquid methane-liquid oxygen) propellant, which would make Mars return missions more feasible. Methalox is easier to handle and store compared to conventional liquid hydrogen propellant. For example, SpaceX has unveiled plans for a reusable launch vehicle, Starship, and the accompanying Mars mission architecture, which relies on in-situ propellant production to supply fuel for the trip back to Earth. Before such a system can be deployed on Mars, a feasibility study and rigorous tests at smaller scales must be conducted on Earth.

Project Timeline

  1. Sabatier Heating Tape Experiment

    August, 2019
    laptop control heating-tape-experiment
  2. Imagine Day

    September, 2019

    This was the first official recruitment which happened for the Sabatier Fuel Plant Project. You may recognize our mech team assistant lead Alyona, meeting the mechanical team lead Dagan for the very first time.

    Team Photo

    September, 2019

    This team photo shows the initial team when the project started.

  3. preheater-testing

    Preheater Test v1

    October, 2019

    This image shows the first test of the first iteration of the preheater, a component that raises the gas travelling through it to at least 500°C. In the initial preheater design, the heating element was a flexible strip of heating tape, wrapped in Cerablanket insulation, and covered in aluminum foil. This first test run showed that we could easily reach the desired temperature, but the design itself was still lacking: the heating element disintegrated once we tried to take it apart, the insulation had sub-optimal performance, and the tube bent under its own weight once the temperature reached our target.

  4. open house

    UBC Engineering Open House

    November, 2019

    This image shows our booth at the engineering open house in 2019 November. We presented our project to high school students interested joining Applied Science UBC. Then new members Joya (Left) and Hang (Right), ended up becoming the co-captains in 2022.

    Reactor Housing Frame

    November, 2019

    This image shows the reactor housing frame being completed. This housing frame is strong enough to carry at least 100kg of weight. It is still used for the test reactor system.

    reactor housing frame
  5. reactor

    Building The Reactor Through the Pandemic

    Summer, 2019

    The pandemic was a huge hit for the team as we had limited access to the team space. Meeting in-person was difficult. Nevertheless, we continued with what we were able to do in the mechanical team leads garage.

  6. mars society

    Presenting our Project at Mars Society

    October, 2020

    Our then Vice Captain Yash, had the opportunity to present at the Mars Society conference. The full presentation can be viewed through this link.

  7. EASC

    American Society of Civil Engineers Earth and Space Conference

    April, 2021

    Our then Captain Andrew and other members of the team were thrilled to share our project at the ASCE Earth and Space conference. Our project paper can be accessed through this link.

  8. EASC

    H2, CO2, Ar, and CH4 arriving to LMRS 160

    May, 2021

    This image shows the gas cylinders of the reactant chemicals beside the fume hood in LMRS 160. Getting these cylinders made us feel that we were getting really close to our goal of producing methane.

    Sabatier Reactor Simulation v1

    May, 2021

    The very first attempt to model our reactor through a series of differential equation. The catalyst simulated was Nickel on Alumina/Silica. Although pretty, the code had some significant errors which would haunt the members in the future.

    Sabatier Reactor Simulation

    Returning to the team Space

    May, 2021

    After a year of not being accessible, we were able to finally partially return to our team space. Its easy to see the smile on Dagan (our mechanical team leads face) even under the mask.

  9. Preheater testing

    Preheater testing

    June, 2021
  10. mfc2

    First MFC in-frame testing

    August, 2021

    This image shows our very first in-frame mass flow controller tests. These mass flow controllers are able to accurately control the amount of reactant gases entering the test reactor.

  11. imagine-day

    Imagine Day

    September, 2021

    This was the first in-person booth we could have since the pandemic started. We missed being able to interact with students interested in our project.

  12. safety-block

    Safety Block

    November, 2021

    At UBC Mars Colony one of our values is safety. This image shows the reactor core (empty) secured on a wooden block so it would not tip over while pouring in the catalyst.

  13. Preheater Final Testing

    December, 2021
    final-test1 final-test2

    Sabatier Reactor Simulation v2

    December, 2021

    This is the second version of the reactor simulation. The fuel plant design sub-team took an additional 2 weeks to fix the code during holiday season. Little did they know that they would need to trash this iteration and start all over in the future.

  14. Dry run test

    Dry Run Test

    February, 2022
  15. team-img

    Team Photo

    March, 2022

    This was the first team photo taken since 2019 September. As the years passed many of the member changed, but the spirt and motivation had only become greater.

  16. condenser-building

    Condenser Building

    April, 2022

    This was the first team photo taken since 2019 September. As the years passed many of the member changed, but the spirt and motivation had only become greater.

  17. fmea-team-meeting

    FMEA Team Meeting

    May, 2022

    With all components of the test reactor ready to preform the experiment. The team took a whole session to make sure there were no safety hazards that we overlooked.

  18. sabatier-simulation-final

    Sabatier Reactor Simulation Final Version

    June, 2022

    The trilogy comes to an end. With plans of using ruthenium instead of the nickel catalyst, the kinetics of the code needed to be altered. It was only then we found out that the math in the code was incorrect the whole time. The simulation was corrected and validated against multiple other research papers.

    Loading the Nickel Catalyst

    June, 2022

    The day before the first ever experiment, Joya(left) the Captain and Dagan (right) the Vice Captain loaded the Nickel on Alumina/silica catalyst to the reactor core. This black powder was carcinogenic and required to be done using coveralls and under the fume hood. For future experiments ruthenium pellets were loaded for safety.

  19. methane-prod

    1st Methane Production Experiment

    June, 2022

    With the catalyst now loaded and safety measures in place the only thing that needed to be done was the actual experiment. These images show the day of the experiment. All members were extremely nervous.

    First drop of water, evidence of methane

    June, 2022

    Although just a few drops of water this suggested that there was indeed methane being produced in the reactor. This was the moment we knew we made methane.

  20. maintaining-the-system

    Maintaining the system

    July, 2022

    With the team conducting experiments some alterations were made on the system to improve the performance of the test reactor.

  21. Confirmation

    CH4 Production

    Present day

    Dr. Jing He at Clean Energy Research Center was kind enough to analyze our gas sample using gas chromatography. With actual direct readings of methane, we were able to confirm that our reactor was producing methane.

Our Team

Dagan Schoen

Vice Captain, Head of Mechanical Team

Joya Yamagishi

Captain, Chemical Team Advisor

Hang Zou

Captain, Electrical Team Advisor


Assistant Lead, Mechanical Team


Lead, Mechanical Team


Lead, Electrical Team

Previous Project Captains

Test Reactor Details

The reactor core is where the actual reaction takes place and where methane is made. It is packed with either a ruthenium or nickel-based catalyst. There is a thermocouple to measure the temperature of the gases.


In the current design, the heating is provided by a coil of nichrome wire, tightly wound around the tube and sandwiched in between two layers of exhaust tape, encased in 5 inches of housing insulation on all sides. The highest temperature we ran it to was 700-degree Celsius.


The control system is responsible for regulating and reporting all operation values. This includes the temperature of the system, the valves, and the mass flow controllers.


The MFCs regulate the mass which passes through it. Each controller is calibrated to each of the gases which are passing through it. The maximum flow rate of the controller is 2L/min.