Much has been made in recent years about the mining of water ice in shadowy craters at the Moon’s south pole for use as rocket propellant. Enthusiasm for this idea led NASA to begin planning the first human missions of its Artemis program to land near the South Pole instead of mid-latitudes.
However, a Houston-based company says the gray, dusty regolith strewn across the lunar surface has value. The company, Lunar Resources, is developing technology to extract iron, aluminum, magnesium and silicon from the Moon’s regolith. These materials, in turn, would be used to manufacture goods on the Moon.
“There are all these precious metals on the Moon, just there to be taken,” said Elliot Carol, managing director of Lunar Resources.
Carol is not the typical CEO of a space company. He is trained as a hedge fund manager and has only been involved in the space industry for the past five years. The opportunity to industrialize the Moon’s surface was too tempting to pass up, he said.
This all might sound fancy, but there’s money and worthwhile technology behind the idea. In addition to private capital raised to date, the National Science Foundation and NASA have provided the company with approximately $3 million in funding to develop a prototype reactor that could be sent to the Moon for demonstration testing. . Carol said this demonstration reactor would be ready to fly “before” 2024.
Metal mining technology has its roots in NASA. This is called molten regolith electrolysis, whereby lunar regolith is heated to a temperature of 1,600 degrees centigrade, melted, and then electrolyzed to produce oxygen and metals, such as iron and silicon. Although composition varies by location, lunar soil is approximately 40-45% oxygen, 20% silicon, and 10% aluminum, with smaller amounts of iron and titanium.
The company’s long-term plan is to produce metals and use them to make electrical systems on the Moon, Carol said. All the materials are there to produce silicon solar cells, transmission cables, energy storage, etc. to provide energy to lunar colonies during the 14-day lunar night.
“These are the kinds of things America needs to do to remain a leader in space,” Carol said. “Resource extraction is necessary for the United States to create a permanent presence on the Moon.”
The company’s initial reactor will be about 1 meter in diameter and height and will process balls of lunar regolith delivered by a small rover. The goal is to process up to 100 kilograms of lunar regolith in 24 hours. Lunar Resources is negotiating with NASA for a trip to the Moon on one of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services missions, Carol said. This demonstrator would represent a fairly large payload for such a mission, around half a metric ton. “The challenge with demonstrating industrial technologies is that they are heavier than science payloads,” Carol said.
In reality, proving a technology like Molten Regolith Electrolysis in a lab is a far cry from doing it in a vacuum on the hard, dusty lunar surface, which has extreme fluctuations in temperature. But no one said space is easy. And that’s precisely the kind of experimental work that NASA’s lunar payload program should support if the space agency is ever to find a path to sustainable deep space exploration.
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