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Scientists generate oxygen from simulated moon dust



Artistic conception of a future lunar base.
Image : ESA / P. Carril

European researchers are working on a system that can be used to generate breathable oxygen from simulated moon samples. dust.

"Obtaining oxygen from resources found on the moon would obviously be extremely useful to settlers in the future moon, both for breathing and for local rocket fuel production," said Beth Lomax, chemist at the University of Glasgow, in one European Space Agency ( ESA) press release .

Lomax is currently working with Alexandre Meurisse, an ESA research colleague, on a prototype that could possibly lead to exactly that: oxygen production from moon dust . They are currently testing their system in the materials and electrical components laboratory of the European Space Research and Technology Center ( ESTEC) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.

Beth Lomax from the University of Glasgow and ESA research fellow Alexandre Meurisse prepare the production of oxygen and metal from simulated moon dust in the ESA laboratory for materials and electrical components.
Image : ESA / A. Conigili

Your prototype works, but adjustments are required to make it suitable for use on the moon, e.g. B. to lower the operating temperature. Lomax and Meurisse are currently working with simulated moon dust but they are confident that their approach will work in reality.

In fact, samples of moon dust, known as regolith, were returned to Earth during the Apollo missions. According to ESA, the oxygen content is approximately 40 to 45 percent. The ESTEC scientists are developing a technique that can remove this oxygen from the dust, which may seem alchemical to the casual observer.

Oxygen in regolith is stubbornly packaged as oxides that form in the dust as minerals or glass. A little chemistry is required to extract the oxygen, as described by the ESA:

The oxygen extraction from ESTEC is carried out using the molten salt electrolysis method, in which regolith is added to a metal basket with molten calcium chloride salt, the electrolyte is heated to 950 ° C. The regolith remains solid at this temperature.

However, by passing a current through, oxygen is removed from the regolith, which migrates over the salt and is collected at an anode. As a bonus, this process also converts the regolith into usable metal alloys.

D This process was developed by Metalysis, a UK-based company that uses the technology to manufacture metals and alloys. Lomax worked with Metalysis during her PhD and is now using the concept at ESTEC.

Simulated moon Dust that is subjected to oxygen extraction.
Image : Beth Lomax / University of Glasgow

Since Metalysis treats the oxygen that is produced as an undesirable by-product, the system had to be optimized so that the researchers can collect and measure the oxygen extracted from the oxygen could rehearsals. The system currently directs oxygen into an exhaust pipe, but future versions will intercept and store this oxygen in the long term.

Interestingly, ESTEC does not treat the metals as an undesirable by-product. The team is currently investigating various ways to use these metals in a lunar environment, e.g. B. the conversion into compounds for 3D printing.

All this work is an indication of a system that could work on the moon. The ESTEC scientists aim to have a functional, moon-compatible version by the mid-2020s. With such a device, future lunar explorers and colonists can breathe a little easier.

Moon dust may be seen as a valuable resource today, but when astronauts first went to the moon NASA was extremely concerned about the potential ] Dangers from moon powder. You could not worry: Subsequent research found simulated moon dust can kill human cells and change DNA.


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