Scientists Are Creating Oxygen From Moon Dust in Experiments That Could Be 'Hugely Useful for Future Lunar Settlers'

The European Space Agency (ESA) has set up a prototype facility with the purpose of producing oxygen from moon dust.

Technology which could produce oxygen in this way on the moon itself could have significant implications for future space missions and permanent lunar settlements.

The oxygen production facility has been set up within the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) located in the Netherlands.

"Being able to acquire oxygen from resources found on the Moon would obviously be hugely useful for future lunar settlers, both for breathing and in the local production of rocket fuel," said Beth Lomax from the University of Glasgow, one of the researchers working on the project.

Lunar regolith—dust, soil, broken rock, and related materials found on the moon's surface—actually consists of between 40-45 percent oxygen. However, this oxygen is not available for immediate use because it is bound up chemically within the regolith. To extract it, the regolith must be processed via a technique called molten salt electrolysis.

At the ESTEC facility, this method involves placing a lunar regolith simulant in a metal basket with molten calcium chloride salt and heating it to 950 degrees Celsius. An electrical current is then passed through the regolith, which extracts the oxygen while also producing useful metal alloys as a byproduct.

"The prototype facility is set up for use with simulated lunar soil, as the real Apollo samples are so rare—and you can only ever work with a very small quantity," Lomax told Newsweek. "As lunar soil is just a collection of metal oxides—like all minerals/rocks—when you extract all the oxygen gas as one product, you also produce a metal powder as the by-product."

"Now we have the facility in operation we can look into fine-tuning it, for instance by reducing the operating temperature, eventually designing a version of this system that could one day fly to the Moon to be operated there," ESA research fellow Alexandre Meurisse added.

moon dust oxygen extraction
Moon dust simulant undergoing oxygen extraction. Beth Lomax/University of Glasgow

As space agencies look toward setting up a sustainable presence on the moon in the near future, this kind of technology could prove to be particularly useful on the lunar surface, providing settlers with a plentiful supply of usable oxygen.

"ESA and NASA are heading back to the Moon with crewed missions, this time with a view towards staying," Tommaso Ghidini, Head of ESA's Structures, Mechanisms and Materials Division, said in a statement.

"Accordingly we're shifting our engineering approach to a systematic use of lunar resources in-situ. We are working with our colleagues in the Human and Robotics Exploration Directorate, European industry and academia to provide top class scientific approaches and key enabling technologies like this one, towards a sustained human presence on the Moon and maybe one day Mars," he said.

The researchers say that their ultimate goal is to set up a "pilot plant" which could function sustainably on the moon using real lunar regolith.

"Oxygen is an extremely important resource, primarily as the largest weight component of most bi-propellant rockets," Lomax said. "If you can re-fuel at or near the lunar surface you can increase the efficiency, sustainability, and reach of deep-space missions. It is also more energy efficient to refuel satellites orbiting Earth with fuel from the Moon than from Earth, due to Earth's deep gravity well."

"The aim of lunar resource utilization is really to make activities in space more sustainable financially and have less impact on Earth's environment," she said. "As this technology can extract all the oxygen out of lunar soil, while other proposed technologies can only extract a smaller percentage, you don't have to excavate as much material. Looking to the future, having a source of metals and alloys for in-space manufacturing will also be highly beneficial."

This article has been updated to include additional comments from Beth Lomax.