In Act 1 of Episode 5x04 (Silicon Avatar)

Back on the planet, the colonists have taken shelter underground. Data believes that the refractory metals in the rock strata will protect them. Crusher is concerned that they and the settlers will run out of air soon.

Data, Riker, Dr. Crusher and a number of colonists are sealed into an underground cavern, and they start to run out of oxygen.

According to Memory Alpha concerning respiratory systems

The Android Lieutenant Commander Data also had a functional respiratory system with the purpose to maintain thermal control of his main systems. Data explained this to Doctor Julian Bashir after he noticed that Data was breathing. (TNG: "Birthright, Part I")

Why couldn't Data reprogram/use his respiratory system to filter out the carbon in the air and exhale oxygen? Even if it was a percentage of what was needed, it would extend the time in the cave by some degree, I'm sure.

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    Is there any special reason to assume that this is even possible? How easy would it be to turn Geordi's lungs inside-out in order to make then into an oxygen factory? – Valorum Sep 16 '15 at 19:26
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    “would you find it surprising to think that Data could filter the air” — well, yes. What are we supposed to imagine? Dr Soong’s building an android, and in the middle of the process he thinks “You know what, I’ll just pop a CO2 filter in here. Might come in useful.” – Paul D. Waite Sep 16 '15 at 19:36
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    Data is a machine, but his components are still designed for specific purposes. As Paul notes, it'd be odd for an engineer to just throw in that feature while building a cooling system. I.e. My Macbook also uses air cooling and is a machine. But I wouldn't expect to be able to reprogram it to generate oxygen for me or filter out CO2. – Lèse majesté Sep 16 '15 at 19:41
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    SCENE 121: INT CAVE : "Crusher: "Hey guys, we're running out of air here, why don't we tear Data to pieces to see if that somehow helps the situation" - Geordi: "Heck yeah. I'll start sharpening some rocks" – Valorum Sep 16 '15 at 19:45
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    I'm just here to say that Data can't do that... – Often Right Sep 17 '15 at 0:11

The most obvious answer is that Data's breathing doesn't use up oxygen and create carbon dioxide. As you've noted in your question, the reason he draws air into his body is for thermal regulation, e.g. to remove the heat from his system.

DATA: Yes. I do have a functional respiration system. However, its purpose is to maintain the thermal control of my internal systems. I am, in fact, capable of functioning for extended periods in a vacuum. - Birthright, Part I

Even if it were the case that his respiration was classical (e.g. converting oxygen and sugars into CO2 + energy) then turning it around using some form of chemosynthesis or photosynthesis (e.g. turning CO2 and energy into oxygen and sugars) would be next to impossible in the short time available. It would be like trying to get a combustion engine to run on fumes and create petrol.

In-universe, Crusher and Geordi are recognised experts at operating on Data's systems. Data himself is probably the Federation's foremost expert in Soongian android design and maintenance. Short of having Bruce Maddox with them, they've literally got the full set of the Federation's most knowledgeable engineers with regard to Data's systems and capabilities all in one place.

The fact that none of them even suggested it at the time would strongly suggest that it simply can't be done.


That article doesn't say anything about Data being able to generate oxygen from CO2. It only implies that his apparent "breathing" is used for cooling (therefore, not true respiration).

In other words, Data uses air cooling, and that's part of the purpose of his apparent breathing. That's all which has been stated in canon.

A regular air cooling system might have the ability to filter out particulates beyond a certain size but not the ability to filter out CO2 (as a rebreather does) or split CO2 into C/CO and O2. Filtering out particulates makes sense for cooling systems to prevent dust buildup in the cooling system. But O2 extraction has no beneficial effects for air cooling (in fact, the techniques used, such as electrolysis or laser-excitation of CO2 to produce C and O2 or CO and O2 would likely generate more heat in the system in addition to taking up more space).


In addition to the other answers pointing out that Data's respiratory system was for primarily for temperature control, and not necessarily for gaseous exchange (although, from other episodes he does seem to need some bio-material, and that may have by-products requiring excretion), there is also the question of how much air volume Data would need to process if he could.

Only two colonists were lost to the crystalline entity - and it could be assumed that all surviving colonists and away team were in the same cave. For a viable initial colony, there's probably at least 100 people there - maybe a lot more. As Lese Majeste points out in his comment below - that'd mean Data would have to scrub thousands of litres of air each minute.

(for Americans - 1 cubic foot is 28 litres - in liquid terms, that's about 7.5 US gallons)

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    He'd have to at least respirate at the rate of however many people are in that cave. The reference air displacement rate when designing ventilation systems is around 20 cubic-feet-per-minute per occupant. I don't recall how many colonists there were, but for even just 100 people, Data would need to shift air at a rate approaching industrial fans. For 1000 people, he'd need Superman-strength lungs. – Lèse majesté Sep 17 '15 at 0:41
  • Just to give some idea, this is what 20000 cfm (for 1000 people) of air displacement looks like: youtube.com/watch?v=iiIdo15gk6k – Lèse majesté Sep 17 '15 at 0:44
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    This just came up in the low quality queue. It currently reads a little more like a comment than a proper answer. I'd suggest fleshing it out a bit more, or at least making it so it doesn't read as another question. – phantom42 Sep 17 '15 at 13:56
  • Hope that improves the answer – HorusKol Sep 17 '15 at 22:56

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