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UK firm to convert Moon rock into oxygen and metal alloys

Professional Engineering

Sheffield’s Metalysis will develop technology to extract oxygen and metallic powder from regolith, or Moon rock (Credit: Shutterstock)
Sheffield’s Metalysis will develop technology to extract oxygen and metallic powder from regolith, or Moon rock (Credit: Shutterstock)

Mankind’s efforts to establish a permanent base on the Moon and travel further through the solar system could receive a major boost thanks to a new project from a UK firm.

Sheffield’s Metalysis will develop technology to extract oxygen and metallic powder from regolith, or Moon rock. The oxygen could be used as propellant or life support on space missions, while the mixed metal alloy could be used for manufacturing on the lunar surface.

The project is funded by the European Space Agency (ESA), as part of international efforts to secure a foothold on the Moon and travel beyond to Mars and other destinations.

Alloy specialist Metalysis uses electrolysis to reduce metal oxides and ores into pure metals and alloys. “Our process operates at lower temperature and lower energy consumption than traditional melting technologies because reduction takes place in the solid-state,” the company’s website states. The method reportedly requires inexpensive components and generates no toxic by-products. 

A NASA-funded study in 2004 investigated the applicability of the FFCCambridge process for the electrolysis of lunar ilmenite, known as the ilmenox process. The process was still in its early stages and was only proven at the laboratory scale, however.

Since then, Metalysis has scaled up its technology, with three generations in operation. The firm can produce titanium and tantalum at an industrial scale, and the production of many other metals and alloys has been proven. The production of intermetallics of aluminium and scandium has been increased to industrial scale.

An initial proof-of-concept study on regolith-like material resulted in a metallic powder and oxygen. Ninety-six per cent of the oxygen was successfully extracted, alongside the mixed metal alloy product for in-situ manufacturing. Construction with lunar materials will significantly reduce payload mass for launches from Earth.

The capability to simultaneously produce oxygen and metal powders is unique, said Ian Mellor, managing director at Metalysis.

Sue Horne, head of space exploration at the UK Space Agency, said: “In the future, if we want to travel extensively in space and set up bases on the Moon and Mars, then we will need to make or find the things required to support life – food, water and breathable air.

“The involvement of Metalysis in a programme that aims to do just that, by producing oxygen on a lunar setting, will showcase the UK’s space credentials on the world stage and help unlock breakthroughs that bring future space exploration a step closer.”

Space resources could be a very lucrative market. The ESA Space Resources Strategy predicts revenues of €73bn–€170bn between 2018 and 2045.

Added Value Solutions will work alongside Metalysis to determine the steps required to translate the technology from Earth to an extra-terrestrial environment.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 


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