Moon rocks turned into oxygen and construction metals for future base

A British firm has won a European Space Agency (ESA) contract to develop methods to process Moon dust into its constituent elements of oxygen and metal alloys.

 With plans afoot to build a base on the Moon (possibly powered by nuclear fission) as a jumping-off point for a mission to Mars, work is being undertaken to minimise the complexity and cost of the project.

With oxygen an essential component for sustainable long duration activities in space, being able to extract it in situ would significantly decrease the payload mass that would be needed to be launched from Earth in supply runs.

Chemicals firm Metalysis, based in Rotherham, has developed a process that should allow for industrial-scale production of metals and alloys, as well as oxygen from Moon dust.

An initial proof of concept study has resulted in a metallic powder where 96 per cent of the total oxygen is successfully extracted, in conjunction with giving a mixed metal alloy product that can be used for manufacturing on site.

Analysis of rocks that have already been brought back from the Moon show they are composed of around 45 per cent oxygen by weight, with the remainder being largely iron, aluminium and silicon.

The ESA contract will provide Metalysis with nine months’ worth of funding to perfect the electrochemical process that will be needed. It will attempt to increase the oxygen yield it gets from the rocks while lowering the amount of energy the process consumes.

Ian Mellor, managing director at Metalysis, said: “We are really pleased Metalysis is involved in this exciting programme, taking an established Earth-based technology and applying it to a lunar setting. The fact that the process is capable of simultaneously producing both oxygen and metal powders is unique.”

Sue Horne, head of space exploration, UK Space Agency, said: “In the future, if we want to travel extensively in space and set up bases on the Moon and Mars, then we will need to make or find the things required to support life – food, water and breathable air.

“The involvement of Metalysis in a programme that aims to do just that, by producing oxygen on a lunar setting, will showcase the UK’s space credentials on the world stage and help unlock breakthroughs that bring future space exploration a step closer.”

In March, a study showed that the urea found in astronaut urine could be reprocessed into a plasticiser for use in the construction of concrete structures.