Future lunar settlers are going to have to extract as many resources from the moon as possible to live without depending on supplies shipped from Earth. Oxygen, water, food, and energy will have to be created on-site.
The European Space Agency has created a machine that takes lunar dust and extracts oxygen from it. The ESA notes that “A prototype oxygen plant has been set up in the Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory of the European Space Research and Technology Centre, ESTEC, based in Noordwijk in the Netherlands.”
Why is the plant being developed? Engadget explains.
“If humans are going to have a long-term presence on the Moon, they’re going to need breathable air and rocket fuel — and the ESA might just have a way to create both using the Moon itself. The agency is running a prototype plant that converts moondust (currently simulated, of course) into oxygen that could be used for air and fuel.
The technique unlocks the high amounts of oxygen in regolith using molten salt electrolysis that superheats the dust and migrates the oxygen along with the salt until it’s collected at an anode. The basic process has already been used for metal and alloy production, but the ESA tweaked it to ensure oxygen was available to measure.”
Moondust is primarily silicon dioxide that has been ground up into a powder from billions of years of meteor impacts on the lunar surface. It also contains trace elements of iron, calcium, and magnesium. These are all useful materials for future lunar settlers once the oxygen has been extracted from it.
Moondust is also highly dangerous. The particles are very sharp and can cause damage if breathed in. The original Apollo astronauts noticed that it was magnetic because of the iron content and got on the spacesuits they wore when walking outside the lunar module. The dust proved to be hard to brush off and would wear through the joints of the spacesuits. The astronauts reported that the lunar dust tasted like gun powder,
Since NASA currently plans to return humans to the moon by 2024, something like the machine that the European Space Agency has created would prove to be quite useful.
“There’s a lot of work needed before plants like this can go to the Moon. It needs to store oxygen instead of simply venting the gas. Likewise, scientists would need to determine what alloys would be the most useful byproducts. A Moon-worthy test plant should be ready by the mid-2020s, though, so it may just be a matter of time before explorers are producing air far from Earth.”
Oxygen, it goes almost without saying, will be used for breathing. It is also a component of rocket fuel. The more rocket fuel that can be produced at a lunar settlement, the less has to be shipped from Earth. The moon could become a refueling station for spacecraft, either going back and forth to and from the moon or headed out to deep space, the asteroids or Mars.
As a bonus, the material left over from the oxygen extraction could be used to make things on the moon, using a 3D printer. Scientists will have to understand the makeup of lunar dust by region.
The silicon, iron, calcium, and magnesium are present in the dust that was found at the Apollo landing sites around the moon’s equator. NASA and the ESA currently contemplate building a moon base at the lunar south pole where another resource, water ice, has been discovered in permanently shadowed craters. The composition of moon dust could be different depending on what part of the moon it is on.
The European researchers have some work to do before a model that could be taken to the moon is available. The machine would have to store the oxygen for later use. The ESA scientists also would like the device to run at a lower temperature than it is now running at.
The European Space Agency anticipates that a moon ready version of the oxygen plant will be available in one of the early Artemis missions, scheduled to start returning humans to the lunar surface as early as 2024.