ESA’s prototype plant shows how future astronauts can get oxygen from lunar soil

Media New Atlas reported that the moon does not have oxygen to breathe, which is clearly an obstacle for future astronauts, so it will be crucial to figure out how to get oxygen on the moon. Now, researchers at the European Space Agency have created a prototype device that can produce oxygen from moon dust, the most common thing on the moon.

ESA's prototype plant shows how future astronauts can get oxygen from lunar soil

Since the Apollo mission returned samples, scientists have conducted extensive research into lunar dust – more formally known as lunar weathered soils. Scientists can then reverse-engineer these things to figure out how future astronauts can make them work, including the feasibility of using weathered soil on the moon’s surface to build a lunar base, and even use them to store heat on dark nights.

These previous studies have shown that oxygen is the most abundant element in the weathered soil of the moon, accounting for 40 to 45 per cent. The problem is that it’s not exactly breathable – oxygen is locked in oxide minerals.

ESA's prototype plant shows how future astronauts can get oxygen from lunar soil

But researchers at the European Centre for Space Research and Technology (ESTEC) have now developed a prototype plant that can extract available oxygen from lunar soil. The device uses a method called molten salt electrolysis, which involves adding moon dust to a bowl of molten calcium chloride salt, which has been heated to 950 degrees C (1742 degrees F).

Even at this extreme temperature, hard slime remains solid. The current is then applied to the mixture and oxygen is extracted from the dust. Melting salts act like electrolytes, allowing oxygen to pass through them and then gather on the anode, where they can be collected and used. This version can be used as proof of concept and, through further refinement, a similar device could one day be sent to the moon to help maintain a sustainable human presence there.

ESA's prototype plant shows how future astronauts can get oxygen from lunar soil

Study author Beth Lomax said: “Whether in terms of breathing or local production of rocket fuel, getting oxygen from the resources found on the moon will be of great benefit to future lunar settlers.” “

Oxygen is not the only potentially useful product extracted from lunar soil. Once the important gas is removed, the rest will contain a mixture of several different metals, which may be useful for astronauts.

ESA's prototype plant shows how future astronauts can get oxygen from lunar soil

“This is another useful area of research to understand what is most useful alloys to produce and what use they can be used for,” said author Alexandre Meurisse. For example, do they print directly in 3D, or do they need to be refined? The exact combination of metals will depend on where heavy minerals are obtained from the moon – and there will be significant differences between regions. “

The team plans to continue to fine-tune the design, hoping to start and run a pilot plant in the next few years.