Study set to extract oxygen from Moon rock regolith

Attempts to colonize the moon could be given a major boost with molten salt and electrolysis technology that extracts oxygen from moon rock.

Indicative lunar lander with In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) payload (Image: Redwire Space Europe)

To this end, Thales Alenia Space has a 1 million study contract with the European Space Agency for a payload concept to do just that.

For sustainable habitation on the moon, people will have to use resources that they find on the moon instead of transporting these resources from the earth; one of these sources is oxygen.

Thales Alenia Space teams in the UK have collaborated with AVS, Metalysis, Open University and Redwire Space Europe to specify a demonstration payload for a European space agency Lunar Mission that uses molten salt and electrolysis to extract oxygen from moon rock regolith.

According to the ESA, samples returned from the lunar surface confirm that lunar regolith is 40-45 percent oxygen and is the most abundant element. However, this oxygen is chemically bonded as oxides in the form of minerals or glass.

The new payload concept will demonstrate that In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) can be performed efficiently on the Moon and produce oxygen in the amounts needed by future lunar colonies.

In a statement, Andrew Stanniland, CEO of Thales Alenia Space in the UK, said: “The adaptation of processes and tools to the space environment, many of which we take for granted on Earth, will be critical in many areas of our future. I am proud that our dedicated teams will lead this study together with our valued partners AVS, Metalysis, Open University and Redwire Space Europe to solve the complex challenge of creating oxygen to sustain life on the lunar surface.”

Technology developed by project partner in 2020 metallysis was used at the European Space Research and Technology Center (ESTEC) in the Netherlands to extract oxygen from regolith simulant.

ESTEC’s oxygen extraction method involved placing regolith in a metal basket containing molten calcium chloride salt as the electrolyte, which was heated to 950°C. The regolith remains solid at this temperature, but by passing a current through it, the oxygen is taken from the regolith and migrated over the salt to be collected at an anode. The process also converts the regolith into useful metal alloys.

The process explored in the latest study aims to reduce the salt mass needed, lower the operating temperature and increase the amount of oxygen produced.

Abhishek Maheswari
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