Blue Origin Says It Can Make Solar Panels From Moon Dust

One of the greatest challenges facing humanity as we advance further into the solar system will be learning to “live off the land” rather than lugging materials with us. Blue Origin now says it has made great strides in this direction by making solar panels out of it Mo dust.

Establishing a more permanent human presence beyond Earth orbit will require vast amounts of material, both for building infrastructure and for astronaut life support. Given the huge cost of space launches, using Earth-based resources to do so is unlikely to be sustainable.

This has led to a growing focus on “in situ resource exploitation” (ISRU), which refers to the use of materials found in space or on other celestial bodies to do things like build shelter, produce oxygen, etc or to do the provision of water. A key challenge is generating enough electricity to support long-term settlements without having to ship bulky energy devices from Earth.

Blue Origin, the space company founded by Jeff Bezos, says it’s closer to solving this problem after showing it can make solar cells from simulated lunar dust. The company’s approach, which it calls “Blue Alchemist,” uses a process known as “molten regolith electrolysis” to create all the key ingredients needed for a working solar panel.

In order to be present at the in the long term MIn order to be viable, we need electricity in abundance,” according to the company said in a blog post. “Your approach, Blue Alchemist can scale indefinitely, eliminating electricity as a constraint anywhere in the world MOh.”

The idea is not particularly new. The fine dust on the moon’s surface, known as regolith, contains all the key ingredients needed to make solar panels, including silicon, iron, magnesium, And Aluminum.

But lunar dust isn’t easy to come by, so researchers first had to create their own to develop their approach. They created a simulated lunar soil that is chemically and mineralogically identical to the real one, even accounting for the different size of the grains.

They then used electrolysis of molten regolith, a well-established process, to extract the key ingredients they were interested in. To do this, the lunar soil is first melted by heating it to over 1,600 degrees Celsius (2,912 degrees Fahrenheit) and then a probe is inserted and a current is passed through the melt.

This separates first the iron, then the silicon and then the aluminum. Since most of these metals are found as oxides in the regolith, it also produces oxygen as a by-product that could be used for both astronaut life support and rocket propulsion.

Crucially, Blue Origin’s approach produces silicon with a purity of 99.99 percent, which is critical if it is to be used in solar panels. Most interestingly, however, they found a way to use the byproducts of the electrolysis process of molten regolith to create glass covers to protect the solar cells from the harsh lunar environment.

The blog that announced the news revealed that the company will be able to make solar cells this way by 2021. And they’re not the only ones – the space company Lunar ResSources told The edge that shehave been doing this for several years.

But when proving The That the concept works with simulated lunar dust on Earth is an impressive step, the actual implementation in space brings with it many other challenges. One of the biggest is getting the gear you need there in the first place. Alex Ignatiev, Lunar Resources Chief Technology Officer The edge that the reactor they use to heat the regolith weighs about a ton.

That’s probably still a lot more weight efficient than shipping hundreds of solar panels from Earth. So it may take some time before you have an ideaf on the ground, this could be an important step towards enabling a more sustained human presence on the lunar surface.

Photo credit: NASA

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *