Scientists from the European Space Agency are currently testing the prototype of a plant capable of generating oxygen from lunar dust.

Scientists Testing Prototype of a Plant Capable of Generating Oxygen From Lunar Dust

Appropriations: ESA

The conquest of space is being prepared and scientists are redoubling their efforts to imagine techniques to make our future voyages possible. The plan is to set foot on the Moon again in 2024 before settling there permanently in 2028, with the hope of colonizing Mars later. But of course, there are several major challenges, including the provision of supplies to the settlers. With particularly fuel-hungry machines and vital oxygen needs, the conquest of space requires taking with you everything you need to ensure the survival of the colonists in space. One of the most practical solutions would be to refuel directly on the spot. For example, researchers have identified a potentially interesting place to settle on Mars, with water only a few centimetres below the surface. But if it is possible, thanks to water, to obtain oxygen and hydrogen through electrolysis, the Moon represents a completely different challenge since the water points are buried much deeper, which would require heavy and energy-intensive equipment to be taken there.

“Being able to acquire oxygen from resources found on the Moon would obviously be extremely useful for future lunar settlers, both for breathing and for local production of rocket fuel,” says Beth Lomax of the University of Glasgow in a European Space Agency press release describing a prototype oxygen power plant. This machine, currently being tested at one of ESA’s centres in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, would theoretically be able to generate oxygen from lunar dust. This dust, more commonly known as regolith, is in fact composed of 40 to 45% oxygen in its mass, as researchers have been able to observe in the samples brought back during the Apollo missions. While isolating this oxygen was already possible by heating the regolith to extreme temperatures above 1600° Celsius, ESA scientists discovered that it could be extracted in a much simpler way.

“Oxygen is extracted using a method called molten salt electrolysis, which involves placing the regolith in a metal basket containing molten calcium chloride salt as the electrolyte, heated to 950° Celsius. At this temperature, the regolith remains solid. By passing a current through it, oxygen is extracted from the regolith and migrates through the salt to be collected at an anode. As a bonus, this process also converts the regolith into usable metal alloys,” the researchers explain in a release. This process would therefore make it possible to obtain not only oxygen but also various metal alloys. This would allow settlers to build various objects and even structures for dwellings, if they did not choose to live in houses created from mushrooms.

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