European Space Agency tests machine that makes water and oxygen by ‘cooking’ lunar soil


Engineers in Europe have demonstrated a way for moon colonists to make their own water and oxygen from lunar soil. 

In the experiment, hydrogen and methane was added to a mineral mixture simulating lunar soil and heated in a furnace to temperatures reaching over 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit, vaporizing the substance.

After ‘washing’ the resultant gasses with hydrogen, water was separated out using a catalytic converter and condenser, with oxygen then extracted via electrolysis. 

In real-world applications, the methane and hydrogen byproducts would then be recycled through the system.

‘Our experiments show that the rig is scalable and can operate in an almost completely self-sustained closed loop, without the need for human intervention and without getting clogged up,’ Michèle Lavagna, an aerospace engineer with Politecnico di Milano, who led the experiments, said in a release.

Half of the soil on the moon is composed of silicon- and iron oxides, which are themselves about one-quarter oxygen. 

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A mineral mixture simulating lunar soil before (left) and after it's been vaporized in at temperatures reaching over 1830 degrees Fahrenheit. Half of the soil on the Moon is composed of oxygen-rich silicon oxides and iron oxides.

A mineral mixture simulating lunar soil before (left) and after it’s been vaporized in at temperatures reaching over 1830 degrees Fahrenheit. Half of the soil on the Moon is composed of oxygen-rich silicon oxides and iron oxides.

Lavagna was part of a consortium of scientists from the European Space Agency, the Italian Space Agency and the German aerospace corporation OHB who demonstrated a prototype this week at the annual meeting of the Europlanet Science Congress, held virtually. 

The two-step process is similar to one already used on Earth but adapted to work with a mineral mixture approximating the surface of the moon.

Rich in silica and metals, the solid by-product created by the process could be further refined for other uses, the scientists said.

‘The capability of having efficient water and oxygen production facilities on- site is fundamental for human exploration and to run high-quality science directly on the moon,’ Lavagna said in the release.

In the second part of the two-step process, water is separated out from the resultant gasses using a catalytic converter and condenser, with oxygen then extracted via electrolysis. Pictured: a prototype device demonstrated this week at a virtual meeting of the Europlanet Science Congress

In the second part of the two-step process, water is separated out from the resultant gasses using a catalytic converter and condenser, with oxygen then extracted via electrolysis. Pictured: a prototype device demonstrated this week at a virtual meeting of the Europlanet Science Congress

In the second part of the two-step process, water is separated out from the resultant gasses using a catalytic converter and condenser, with oxygen then extracted via electrolysis. Pictured: a prototype device demonstrated this week at a virtual meeting of the Europlanet Science Congress

‘These laboratory experiments have deepened our understanding of each step in the process,’ she added. ‘It is not the end of the story, but it’s very a good starting point.’

This week’s demonstration is just the latest in a series of experiments conducted ‘to optimize the temperature of the furnace, the ratio of the mixtures of gasses and other factors, according to the release.

The researcher’s analysis indicated processing the soil in small batches at the highest possible temperature generates the best results.

vanalysis indicated processing the soil in small batches at the highest possible temperature generates the best results. Pictured: An artist's rendering of a lunar outpost

vanalysis indicated processing the soil in small batches at the highest possible temperature generates the best results. Pictured: An artist's rendering of a lunar outpost

The researcher’s analysis indicated processing the soil in small batches at the highest possible temperature generates the best results. Pictured: An artist’s rendering of a lunar outpost

Other researchers have also been working to get oxygen from the lunar soil. 

In 2017, Thorsten Denk, an aerospace engineer with Spain’s Plataforma Solar de Almeria, unveiled his plans for a reactor that would do the job.

Denk’s device only requires hydrogen brought from Earth for its initial use—after the first few hours it would recycle the element, dramatically cutting down on cargo weight.

He claimed his machine made enough oxygen and water to supply six to eight astronauts. 

Engineers will need to develop ways to provide oxygen, water and even shelter on the Moon that don't require bringing heavy equipment. The cost to put anything in space is about $10,000 per pound, according to NASA

Engineers will need to develop ways to provide oxygen, water and even shelter on the Moon that don't require bringing heavy equipment. The cost to put anything in space is about $10,000 per pound, according to NASA

Engineers will need to develop ways to provide oxygen, water and even shelter on the Moon that don’t require bringing heavy equipment. The cost to put anything in space is about $10,000 per pound, according to NASA 

Water is already abundant on the moon, albeit in a different state. 

A 2018 study published in Nature Geoscience determined water, in the form of OH – a more reactive relative of H2O – was all over the lunar surface rather than clustered at the poles.

That means future lunar colonies could harvest water without having to bring it from Earth.

Engineers developing ways to provide oxygen, water, shelter, and other of life’s necessities to the Moon are hindered by how difficult and expensive it is to bring materials into space. 

The cost to put anything in space is about $10,000 per pound, according to NASA,

Last week, scientists at the University of Manchester unveiled designs for a concrete-like building material made, in part, from human blood, urine and sweat.

Scientists at the University of Manchester have developed a glue-like substance made with human blood and other bodily fluids that could create highly durable concrete on the Moon

Scientists at the University of Manchester have developed a glue-like substance made with human blood and other bodily fluids that could create highly durable concrete on the Moon

Scientists at the University of Manchester have developed a glue-like substance made with human blood and other bodily fluids that could create highly durable concrete on the Moon

Mixed with soil on Mars or the moon the glue-like substance, called AstroCrete, would create a building material 300 percent stronger than ordinary concrete, according to their report the journal Materials Today Bio.

Each astronaut could produce enough excretions to expand their habitat to support an additional crew member.

The team calculated that a crew of six astronauts could produce over 1,100 pounds of high-strength AstroCrete in a two-year Mars mission.

The process hasn’t been perfected, as 200 pounds of concrete is needed to construct just one square foot of a single-level home. 



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Written by bourbiza

bourbiza is an entertainment reporter for iltuoiphone News and is based in Los Angeles.

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