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Oxygen And Metal Powder Extracted from Moonrocks

Moon  ©NASA

British engineers who are perfecting a technique for transforming moondust into oxygen have made a breakthrough that could shape the future of space exploration. Using specially designed pilot reactors, engineers have successfully extracted air from simulated moonrock, leaving behind kilos of metal powder that could one day be used to build lunar habitats. This is the first time the by-product has been produced in these quantities.

The demonstration could pave the way for an extra-terrestrial extraction plant for oxygen and manufacturing materials that would enable lunar exploration while avoiding the enormous cost of sending supplies from Earth. The technology could even be used to develop a spacecraft refueling station on the Moon.

Metalysis, United Kingdom, has already developed a mineral extraction process, which is currently used by industries on Earth to produce metals. For the past year the company has been working with the European Space Agency (ESA) to explore how this process could be used in a lunar setting, a project which forms part of wider agency preparations to support the establishment of a permanent and sustainable presence on Earth's natural satellite. Lunar regolith contains about 45% oxygen which is bound to metals such as iron and titanium.

The electrochemical process takes place in a chamber the size of a washing machine. Simulant regolith is submerged in a molten salt and a current is then passed through it. This triggers the extraction of the oxygen, which then migrates across the liquid salt to collect at an electrode, leaving behind a mixture of metal powders. These powders could be 3D-printed, cast or processed into materials to construct equipment or infrastructure.

Energy is already at a premium on the Moon, so this could open up numerous opportunities for in-situ resource utilization and advanced manufacturing.

In parallel, ESA has challenged experts to develop an in-process monitoring system that could be used to keep track of oxygen production in future lunar extraction plants.

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