Researchers at Northumbria University in England say they have invented an innovative technique to harvest energy from solid carbon dioxide. The research, which was published in the journal Nature Communications, makes use of a property of liquids known as the Leidenfrost effect.

The scientists have proposed a new type of engine that would exploit the Leidenfrost effect, which occurs when a liquid comes close to a surface much hotter than its boiling point. This phenomenon is commonly seen when cold water skitters across the surface of a hot pan. The Leidenfrost effect also applies to solid carbon dioxide, better known as dry ice, causing it to hover above hot surfaces due to a barrier of evaporated gas.

The researchers propos using this vapor as a source of power for an engine as new evidence from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suggests that dry ice naturally occurs on Mars, making this engine ideal for that environment.

"Carbon dioxide plays a similar role on Mars as water does on Earth. It is a widely available resource which undergoes cyclic phase changes under the natural Martian temperature variations,” Dr. Rodrigo Ledesma-Aguilar, one of the study's authors, told ScienceDaily. "Perhaps future power stations on Mars will exploit such a resource to harvest energy as dry-ice blocks evaporate, or to channel the chemical energy extracted from other carbon-based sources, such as methane gas.”

The study has highlighted the growing challenge posed by humanity’s limited ability to harvest energy from different sources. The proposed Leidenfrost-based engine has the added advantage of being low-friction, according to Dr. Gary Wells, a co-author of the paper. 

"The working principle of a Leidenfrost-based engine is quite distinct from steam-based heat engines; the high-pressure vapour layer creates freely rotating rotors whose energy is converted into power without the need of a bearing,” Wells said.

Prof. Glen McHale, who also worked on the paper, added that the engine’s low-friction properties make it interesting for potentially opening new breakthroughs. "This is the starting point of an exciting avenue of research in smart materials engineering. In the future, Leidenfrost-based devices could find applications in wide ranging fields, spanning from frictionless transport to outer space exploration."