Although Earth isn’t perfect (mostly thanks to humans) it does have something that we can’t live without—oxygen. As humanity sets its sights on returning to the moon and traveling to other planets, figuring out how space colonists will breathe is a major topic of discussion.
Now, scientists have arrived at a clever conclusion that might solve the problem. A team of researchers from the European Space Agency (ESA) has found a way to turn moon dust into breathable oxygen. While the process certainly isn’t simple, it could provide unlimited access to a life-sustaining resource for humans hoping to live on the moon.
Blowing Hot Air
A fine, fragile dust called regolith covers the entirety of the moon’s surface. In most cases, this dust is a nuisance. It has a habit of sticking to everything and causes huge problems for the likes of rovers and solar panels. As such, it is an issue that needs to be addressed before humans can to set up a permanent moon base.
Nonetheless, it might also be an extremely useful resource. For instance, researchers believe that it could be melted by lasers and used for 3D printing structures on the moon. Others think that it could be turned into bricks for building.
However, ESA scientists have an even more ambitious use for regolith. Their new technique can turn the substance into oxygen with a seemingly simple chemical reaction. It’s important to note that moon dust naturally contains about 40 to 50 percent oxygen by weight. This occurs in several forms of metal oxides, which means that it isn’t ready to use.
That’s where the ESA technique comes in. Known as molten salt electrolysis, it involves putting regolith in a metal basket alongside molten calcium chloride salt. After heating it to a high temperature scientists pass an electric current through the mixture to extract the oxygen from it. The pure gas could hypothetically fill the breathing tanks and larger habitats of future moon dwellers.
Interestingly enough, the process of extracting oxygen from the moon’s regolith might be doubly useful. The method produces metal alloys as a byproduct. These, in turn, could be useful for building future moon settlements.
ESA research fellow Alexandre Meurisse says, “Could they [the alloys] be 3D printed directly, for example, or would they require refining? The precise combination of metals will depend on where on the moon the regolith is acquired from—there would be significant regional differences.”
Ironically, the technique of transforming regolith didn’t originate due to the pursuit of oxygen. Rather, a company called Metalysis wanted to extract the metal alloys themselves. It considered oxygen a byproduct of the reaction.
With some clever redesigning, researchers were able to turn Metalysis’ reactor into one that harvests oxygen while creating the alloys in the process. For future moon travelers, this breakthrough is huge.
If scientists can figure out how to capture oxygen from regolith on a large scale, a near-endless supply of breathable oxygen would be just a reaction away. In the process, moon colonists would create the metal alloys needed to create labs, homes, and new equipment.
Although the solution is nearly perfect, it will take some time to get used to “farming” vital resources. In that aspect, perhaps the moon is more like Tatooine than we thought.