The search for oxygen has taken us to the Moon. It has been discovered that the regolith, a layer of dust, rocks and dirt that covers the surface of our satellite, has large amounts of this precious element, and now they know how to extract it. The next step that ESA wants to take is to do it on a large scale.
The possibility of extracting oxygen from the lunar dust is one of the great challenges that today’s science has proposed. In 2019 it was investigated how to extract it from a moon dust simulator, and now a specialized facility is being prepared for play it on a large scale at the European Space Research and Technology Center of the European Space Agency (ESA), in the Netherlands.
For now it is just a project that is in prototype phase, but if it works, it would be a very important source of resources for lunar missions, and even for long-term missions with moon bases and colonies. To work on it, the facility will use the techniques developed by chemistry Beth Lomax, from the University of Glasgow.
Lomax explained that “being able to obtain oxygen from resources found on the Moon would obviously be of great help so that the future colonizers of the Moon can breathe and produce rocket fuel.”
The oxygen content in the regolith is between 40% and the Four. Five%, but until recently it was difficult to extract it. With the research carried out in 2019 by the Lomax team, a new way of addressing this challenge came effectively: it is about the molten salt electrolysis.
The process is as follows: the regolith is deposited in a mesh basket, and calcium chloride is added, which is precisely the electrolyte. The mixture is then heated to about 950 degrees Celsius, a temperature that does not melt the material. Thanks to this, after applying an electric current it is possible to extract the oxygen, and the powdered materials migrate to an anode, so that they can be easily removed.
This technique is very precise, since it manages to extract until the 96% oxygen of the regolith. In addition, as explained by ESA experts, the oxygen isolated material is a mixture of metal alloys whose analysis opens another useful line of research.
All this is part of one of ESA’s latest and most ambitious projects. As the head of the Organization’s Structures, Mechanisms and Materials Division, Tommaso Ghidini, affirmed, “we are changing our technical approach towards a systemic use of lunar resources in situ.” The goal is “a constant human presence on the Moon and, someday, maybe on Mars.”