In a first, scientists want to turn Martian soil and air into iron

The first extensive investigation of metal manufacturing on another planet has just been published.
Christopher McFadden
  • In a world first, a study points to the ability to make metals in situ on planets like Mars.
  • Such a process would prove invaluable to future human explorers.
  • It would also be an essential component to creating stable colonies on other worlds.

In alien world exploration news, researchers have developed a potential strategy for exploiting metals on other worlds, like Mars. If ever realized, such a process would prove incredibly important for any future human colonizing missions to such planets.

The first thorough investigation of its kind, the study investigated metal synthesis on extraterrestrial planets. This study has been released by a research team under the direction of Swinburne's Professor Akbar Rhamdhani.

The study in question concentrated on mining metals on Mars, but could be applied to planets with similar conditions.

The team behind the study worked on a method that would use cleaned-up Martian air, dirt, and sunshine to produce metallic iron. Such a process would generate carbon through the cooling of CO gas, as a byproduct of the creation of oxygen in the Martian atmosphere. Heat for the process would be provided by concentrated solar radiation.

In a first, scientists want to turn Martian soil and air into iron
Artist's impression of a Martian colony.

Through the NASA project MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment), this oxygen synthesis was been shown to be possible on Mars, perhaps even on the Perseverance rover. In order to co-produce oxygen and iron alloy, which may be utilized to manufacture metals, Swinburne's metal extraction method is designed to be paired with a future oxygen generating facility (one that is considerably larger than MOXIE).

This process, it is believed, can then be utilized to advance human development and missions on Mars.

Why are metals necessary to us on other planets?

Technology launch into orbit is costly, time-consuming, and unsustainable. Resource production from other planets enables more effective, affordable, and environmentally responsible space development.

This enables increased human exploration and the development of technology, like as satellites, which aid in data collection and problem-solving on Earth.

To advance the research, the team, which consists of postdoctoral researcher Dr. Reiza Mukhlis and Ph.D. candidates Deddy Nababan, Matthew Shaw, and Matthew Humbert from Swinburne's Fluid and Process Dynamics Research Group and Space Technology and Industry Institute, is now closely collaborating with CSIRO Minerals and the CSIRO Space Technology Future Science Platform.

Professor Akbar Rhamdhani explained, "we would like to develop a metal extraction process on Mars that is truly utilizing in-situ resources—without bringing reactants from Earth—to support further human mission and development on Mars."

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"If you wanted to build something large on Mars without having to pay to launch everything from Earth (think large satellites, mars colonies, refueling depots, and more), this could be a very valuable process," he added.

In a first, scientists want to turn Martian soil and air into iron
Making metals in situ on an alien world, would be a powerful tool indeed

Swinburne director of the Space Technology and Industry Institute, Professor Alan Duffy, also explained, "Australia is committed to supporting NASA's Return to the moon and going beyond to Mars in Project Artemis, and they will require the use of the resources of the moon and Mars to make that feasible. We are using Swinburne's expertise and industry partnerships in resource extraction and processing to help make NASA's vision of astronauts walking on the red planet that little bit easier. This work is one small step for metal processing, that can make a giant leap for humanity building off-world."

You can view the study for yourself in the journal Acta Astronautica.

Study abstract:

"In situ resource utilization (ISRU), and specifically the extraction and production of structural metals from Martian soil, is important for supporting further exploration, habitat and industrial developments on Mars. Considering Mars's atmospheric conditions and soil compositions, systematic analyses (supported by thermodynamic calculations) on possible metal extraction processes have been carried out. The analyses suggest that carbothermic reduction of Martian regolith would be the preferable starting point considering the abundance of carbon in the form of CO2 in the Martian atmosphere. It was proposed that carbon would be sourced from the cooling of carbon monoxide produced from CO2 electrolysis (MOXIE) from the Martian atmosphere. An Ellingham diagram showing the relative stability of oxides at Mars's atmospheric pressure of 7 mbar has been constructed; detailed equilibrium calculations to evaluate the carbothermic reduction of Martian regolith have also been carried out. The thermodynamic calculations predicted the formation of liquid Fe alloy with 99.9% conversion when the regolith was reacted with carbon (at approximately 10 wt% addition) at 1120 °C and 7 mbar. The impurities in the liquid Fe alloy were predicted to be mainly Si, C, Cr, and P. The hot gas produced from the process was predicted to be rich in CO (91%) and could be used for the preheating of the regolith. The CO could also be recycled and condensed to produce C (that could be re-used for the carbothermic reduction). The minimum energy requirement for the carbothermic reactor was calculated to be 3.37 MWh/tonne of liquid iron alloy (while the total energy requirement including MOXIE and agglomeration was calculated to be 15.51 MWh/tonne of liquid iron alloy). A generic process flowsheet has been developed considering these results."

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