The European Space Energy Is Creating Pure Oxygen out of Moon Dust

Tuesday, 21 January 2020 - 10:09AM
Moon
Technology
Tuesday, 21 January 2020 - 10:09AM
The European Space Energy Is Creating Pure Oxygen out of Moon Dust
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Credit: ESA - P. Carril – CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
The European Space Agency has opened a facility in the Netherlands for the ongoing manufacture of oxygen from moon dust.


"Being able to acquire oxygen from resources found on the Moon would obviously be hugely useful for future lunar settlers, both for breathing and in the local production of rocket fuel," pointed out Beth Lomax in a statement. Lomax is a doctoral researcher from the University of Glasgow. Lomax's Ph.D. work is part of the ESA's Networking and Partnering Initiative, which supports space- and astronomy-focused academic research.


"Having our own facility allows us to focus on oxygen production, measuring it with a mass spectrometer as it is extracted from the regolith simulant," Lomax explained.


"Regolith" is a catch-all term that refers to loose rocky material covering solid bedrock. Moon regolith is, according to NASA, the "fine gray soil" on the surface of the Moon. It can be anywhere from five to ten meters deep, with the deepest deposits found in the highland areas of the lunar surface. It contains anywhere between 40-45% oxygen by weight, but this oxygen is chemically "trapped" in minerals and moon glass.


To make oxygen out of moon dust, scientists used a technique called "molten salt electrolysis." First, they created a chemically identical form of regolith in a lab so as not to sacrifice the few samples we do have on Earth. Next, researchers melted down a type of salt called calcium chloride, heating the salt to a scorching 1742°F. Then, they passed an electrical current through the regolith. The current extracted the oxygen from the regolith and "migrated" it to the negatively-charged end of the device for collection.


And it's surprisingly sustainable. "The production process leaves behind a tangle of different metals, and this is another useful line of research, to see what are the most useful alloys that could be produced from them, and what kind of applications could they be put to," added Alexandre Meurisse, an ESA research fellow. "Could they be 3D printed directly, for example, or would they require refining? The precise combination of metals will depend on where on the Moon the regolith is acquired from – there would be significant regional differences."


All of this is being put into motion to support future manned missions to space. "ESA and NASA are heading back to the Moon with crewed missions, this time with a view towards staying," said Tommaso Ghidini, the head of the ESA's Structures, Mechanisms and Materials Division.


"Accordingly we're shifting our engineering approach to a systematic use of lunar resources in-situ. We are working…to provide top class scientific approaches and key enabling technologies like this one, towards a sustained human presence on the Moon and maybe one day Mars."


Cover Image: ESA - P. CarrilCC BY-SA 3.0 IGO


 
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