Scientists Are Making Air Out of Moondust for Lunar Settlements
Researchers at the European Space Agency are developing a system that can produce oxygen from lunar dust (regolith). Technology will help future settlers extract air and industrial materials.
Analysis of lunar dust samples delivered to Earth during missions «Apollo», showed that it contains 40-45% oxygen. However, it is not so easy to extract it, since the gas in the regolith is in the form of oxides as part of various minerals and glasses. To address this issue, a team from ESA is currently testing a prototype of a miniature lunar residual soil recycling plant..
Extraction of oxygen in it is carried out using molten salt electrolysis. For this, the regolith is placed in a metal basket. with molten calcium chloride salt heated to 950 °C, which acts as an electrolyte. Under such conditions, the lunar dust remains solid, but when an electric current is passed through it, the oxides are split, and pure oxygen begins to migrate through liquid salt accumulated at the anode.
A by-product of this process is various metal alloys that are suitable for further use. Therefore, the team is also exploring ways to recycle and use these metals in lunar environments, such as 3D printing..
So far, researchers transform only an artificially created regolith, but it is hoped that the technology will also work effectively with real material. The final version of the system, which can function in low temperature and gravity, like on the moon, is planned to be developed by the mid-2020s..
Although humanity will not soon be able to transfer industrial production to the satellite, but such devices will help the first explorers and colonists to obtain oxygen for breathing and fuel, as well as metals for the repair of equipment. ESA also plans to use regolith as an affordable building material and store of value solar energy.
text: Ilya Bauer, photo: ESA