Several countries and organizations are racing towards the Moon, but this time, the plan is to leave more than mere footprints. A British company called Metalysis has won a European Space Agency (ESA) contract to refine its existing technology that turns lunar regolith (loose, unconsolidated surface rocks) into oxygen while simultaneously producing aluminum, iron, and other metal alloys for the moonfarers to work with.
Should the process prove a viable one with the improvements, we will probably see extraction plants being built on the moon to produce materials right there. Ian Mellor, the managing director of the company says, “If you want to go further out into space, it’s a gas station on the moon essentially, to get into deeper space.”
He explains that anything you shoot up there from the Earth is added weight that no one actually wants to carry as it's expensive to ship items thousands of miles vertically. So if we could source these materials up there, it would save a lot of money and time.
How did they come up with this?
Analysis of moon rocks brought back from previous missions showed that about 45% of their weight was oxygen. The rest is mostly aluminum, iron, and silicon. In January, a joint team of scientists from Metalysis and the University of Glasgow showed that they could extract 96% of that oxygen (they worked on simulated lunar soil) and still have a powder of the aforementioned materials as residue.
NASA, ESA, and other agencies around the world are making preparations for a permanent moon base for different nations and corporations to work alongside one another. The preparations are tackling critical issues such as habitat construction, energy generation, food production, and life support.
The ESA's contract will fund the company for 9 months so they can optimize the process. This electrochemical process involves passing a current through the materials to unbind oxygen from them. On Earth, the oxygen was treated as a byproduct and simply let go. But, for its use on the Moon, they have to come up with a way to capture and store it.
This oxygen could be turned into breathable with the addition of several other gases, but keep in mind that rockets also use it as an oxidizer to complete the combustion reaction. University of Glasgow scientist Mark Symes notes the moon rocks have in an interview with The Guardian as “an enormous potential source of oxygen.”
This is significant because there is no free oxygen on the moon, so astronauts would have to take all their own oxygen with them to the moon, for life support and to enable their return journey, and this adds considerably to the weight and hence the expense of rocket launches bound for the moon.