Though the moon contains large amounts of water and oxygen, the materials are not easily accessible.
According to a press release, scientists from the Polytechnic University of Milan, the European Space Agency, the Italian Space Agency, and space systems corporation OHB developed a new technique to harvest elements from anywhere on the moon’s surface.
Obtaining resources for survival on the Moon
The scientists collaborated on a two-step process based on an existing technique used on Earth for industrial chemistry applications.
The technique will allow astronauts to take advantage of the fact that approximately 50% of lunar soil is composed of silicon or iron oxides, both of which are composed of approximately 26% oxygen.
Because these materials are plentiful on the moon’s surface, the new technique could be deployed quickly from any landing site.
The researchers heated simulated lunar soil in a furnace to temperatures around 1000 degrees Celsius in lab tests. They did this in the presence of hydrogen and methane to vaporize the soil, causing the oxygen-rich materials to directly convert from a solid to a gas.
The gases and residual methane were then separated using a catalytic converter in preparation for water extraction. The water produced by this process is safe to drink and can also be used to extract oxygen via electrolysis.
Hydrogen and methane byproducts can be reused for other purposes such as biofuel, while a solid byproduct rich in silica and metals could be processed for building materials — after all, crazier-sounding ideas have been proposed, such as harvesting astronaut blood as a binding agent for construction materials.
An ‘almost entirely self-sustaining closed-loop’
Furthermore, one of the project’s researchers, Prof. Michèle Lavagna of the Polytechnic University of Milan, explained that the rig used for their technique can be used in a “almost completely self-sustaining closed loop, without the need for human intervention and without becoming clogged up.” He also stated that “having efficient water and oxygen production facilities on-site is critical for human exploration and running high-quality science directly on the moon.”
Scientists all over the world are hard at work developing new techniques for gathering materials for future off-world missions.
NASA announced in April that its Perseverance rover mission had accomplished a historic first by extracting the first breathable oxygen from Mars using an experimental instrument known as MOXIE.
Meanwhile, Masten Space Systems, based in California, is working on a rover that will use controlled blasts to harvest lunar ice, which will be converted into drinking water and oxygen for future lunar bases.
NASA may have recently postponed its plans to send humans to the moon by 2024, but the scientific community has continued to deliver innovative new methods to help future lunar astronauts survive.