NASA: Challenge drives students to develop moon-friendly portable microwave system

Undergraduate students nominated to build prototype in NASA’s Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game-Changing (BIG) Idea Challenge as part of its Artemis mission
Shubhangi Dua
Engineering students are developing a portable microwave system that could be used on the moon to smelt ilmenite
Engineering students are developing a portable microwave system that could be used on the moon to smelt ilmenite

Kate Myers / Penn State College of Engineering 

In NASA’s efforts to accelerate the advancement of cutting-edge and innovative technology that can be integrated into future missions, it launched the BIG Idea Challenge in 2016.

Every year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration solicits the help of engineering students around the country. 

This year’s theme, “Lunar Forge: Producing Metal Products on the Moon,” challenges undergraduate and graduate students to design, develop, and demonstrate technologies that will enable the production of lunar infrastructure from ISRU-derived metals found on the Moon, according to NASA. 

The space agency places emphasis on the need for pivotal infrastructure products including storage vessels for liquids and gases, extrusions, pipes, power cables, and supporting structures (such as roads, and landing pads).

A group of undergraduate students from Penn State's Student Space Programs Laboratory (SSPL) in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science were among the seven universities chosen to receive funding from NASA. 


The Penn State team was awarded $130,000 to construct a prototype as part of the challenge. The students developed a system called SMELT (Smelting with Microwave Energy for Lunar Technologies System) for In-Situ Resource Processing aimed at smelting ilmenite for building permanent structures on the moon, according to Penn State University. 

Director of SSPL and professor of engineering, Sven Bilén says that he came with the initial idea but the project is completely student-led and driven.

“By working directly with NASA engineers to implement their project, the students are getting exposed to NASA’s mission and priorities for Artemis. They are challenged to learn design and building techniques outside of the classroom, which are often graduate-level concepts,” said Bilén.

Currently, the SSPL team is in the first phase of the project out of four. Senior student, also SMELT team leader, Jack Pierce says that they’re still looking to make major design changes including enhancing the surface geometry and surface material of the microwave.

NASA: Challenge drives students to develop moon-friendly portable microwave system
A sample of ilmenite, a common lunar material, glows red hot after only 30 seconds in the microwave chamber

Additionally, Pierce said, “By using different materials and shapes to direct the microwaves, we are able to focus all of the energy into one area and reach our test material’s melting point to produce a molten mass.”

Project ambitions

Penn State reports that the team aims to improve the common household microwave to better control the power output, redesign the heating chamber to withstand longer heating intervals, and resize the system to best meet the needs of the Artemis project.

The main objective of the SMELT device is to ultimately direct microwave radiation into a chamber containing the ilmenite and heat it to a critical temperature so that it melts together, the university states

The other three phases will focus on power and time optimization; environmental testing, or making sure the device can operate on the moon; and lastly scalability testing and ensuring that the device is ready to produce metal at an industrial scale.  

Alex Baumgartle, a SMELT team leader and senior student addresses the challenge of producing a device that can be successfully tested on the moon. 

He says that, while the microwave concept of melting metals isn’t novel, the obstacles mainly confront when the innovation needs to maximize its energy efficiency while minimizing the overall weight and size of the system

Associate civil engineering professor, Aleksandra Radlińska explains, “with one-sixth of the gravity of Earth, physics happens differently on the moon, which makes for a great challenge when trying to develop construction materials for the moon here on Earth.”

“We will be applying the latest materials research principles to this project in order to create a viable smelting technique and device that NASA can then test in space,” said Radlińska.

Penn State will continue the BIG Idea Challenge project this summer and into the fall as the team develops a working prototype.

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