ESA researchers built a plant that can extract oxygen from the moon

Cal Jeffrey

Posts: 3,444   +1,024
Staff member
The final frontier: European scientist are hoping they can send an oxygen plant to the moon for a sustainable long-term mission. The facility would convert moon dust into breathable oxygen for the settlers. The mission is still quite far out, but the team hopes to have a viable demonstration of the technology by the middle of this decade.

European Space Agency (ESA) researchers have begun extracting oxygen from simulated moon dust. A reclamation plant has been built at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands that can remove and harness oxygen from lunar regolith. The process leaves behind a mixture of metal alloys, which might also be recycled.

The ESA envisions the oxygen and leftover byproducts being used by lunar settlers for breathable air and rocket fuel.

“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,” notes Beth Lomax, lead researcher from the University of Glasgow. “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.”

While the researchers currently use simulated regolith because of the rarity of actual samples, tests with small amounts of returned moon dust show that it is made up of about 40-45 percent oxygen. It is, in fact, the most abundant element in the material, but is chemically bound to oxides.

The extraction method, called “molten salt electrolysis,” superheats the dust to break the oxide bonds. The regolith is placed in a container with molten calcium chloride salt, which serves as an electrolyte. It is then heated to 950 degrees Celsius. The dust remains solid at this temperature. Then electrical current is run through it, separating the oxygen, which flows through the salt and is collected in an anode.

The method is not novel. It was developed by UK-based Metalysis for metal and alloy production. However, in that capacity, oxygen was an unwanted byproduct that was released instead of collected. In this instance, the alloys are the byproduct, but ESA research fellow Alexandre Meurisse mentioned that they are also interested in what they could do with the metals.

“The production process leaves behind a tangle of different metals,” said Meurisse. “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.”

The current harvesting plant expels the oxygen as CO2 exhaust, but they plan to modify it to store the element. The ESA eventually wants to transport a version to the moon. The team should have a tech demo ready some time between 2024 and 2026.

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dualkelly

Posts: 193   +232
Another one of those bizarre ideas...

Plants are only efficient in producing oxygen when used in the open, naturally, and cover vast areas. However, if the planet is unable to keep the oxygen in, it all will dissipate into space.

Using plants on a planet that's unable to keep oxygen seems a bit silly, compared to synthesizing it directly, from available chemicals. You will need even more chemicals and work just to keep the plants going.

In the end, it will be unsustainable.
Plant as in Factory. Not plant as in green leafy thing growing in the ground.
 

p51d007

Posts: 3,081   +2,545
Not in my lifetime ;)

I'm in my early 60's. If the government has anything to do with it...it will take another 20
years, just to pick out the color for the interior of the place LOL.
 

QuantumPhysics

Posts: 6,239   +7,159
I think the real shame is that 70's and 80's literature assumed we'd be on the Moon and Mars by now.

If we hadn't cancelled the Mercury capsule program for the wasteful corporate welfare STS-program, we'd probably already.

The way I see it, any mission we launch to Mars needs to start on the moon - and end on the moon.

#1 requires less energy to get from the moon to Mars - than have to leave Earth gravity
#2 Moon gravity isn't as stressful on the human body as Earth's. Once you are on the moon or Mars long enough, you won't be able to return to Earth because the physical stress would literally kill you.
#3 There are fissionable resources on the moon to mine and use for nuclear fission. There is no "environment" there to worry about. Not to mention virtually non stop solar power in some places.
 

Mister_K

Posts: 2,150   +856
This is great but wouldn't that mean Lunar dust will start getting depleted over time causing problems of "dust shortages"? Just a thought.
 

lipe123

Posts: 972   +561
This is pretty awesome, making heat from solar power is a pretty much a unlimited resource on the moon.

Would they be able to do the same thing on Mars?! Would be cool to send an automated drone thing to the moon and just let it go to town and try and make oxygen.

If it works then we just send a bunch over to Mars and breathable atmosphere in just 300 or so years :D
 

Red999

Posts: 100   +37
As the current output is carbon dioxide instead of pure oxygen, it seems what they do is burning the dust with coal in electric furnace. it just like how steel mills do
 
Sounds fascinating, although I am NOT a scientist...it seems that creating 950 C to extract the O2 must consume a massive amount of energy and/or oxygen?? Possibly even more than it creates?? Maybe not, and if so, very clever.
 

neeyik

Posts: 1,881   +2,207
Staff member
Sounds fascinating, although I am NOT a scientist...it seems that creating 950 C to extract the O2 must consume a massive amount of energy and/or oxygen?? Possibly even more than it creates?? Maybe not, and if so, very clever.
Just energy is required - first to heat it, then to drive current through it. Build large enough solar plants on the lunar surface and you've got what's required.
 

Red999

Posts: 100   +37
Sounds fascinating, although I am NOT a scientist...it seems that creating 950 C to extract the O2 must consume a massive amount of energy and/or oxygen?? Possibly even more than it creates?? Maybe not, and if so, very clever.
electric furnace can do that. sun light on the moon is also stronger than in earth (no cloud) so solar cell can produce more power.