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European Space Agency tests machine that makes water and oxygen by ‘boiling’ lunar soil

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Engineers in Europe have demonstrated a way for lunar settlers to make their own water and oxygen from lunar soil.

In the experiment, hydrogen and methane were added to a mineral mixture that simulated lunar soil and heated in a furnace to temperatures over 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit, causing the substance to evaporate.

After ‘washing’ the resulting gases with hydrogen, the water was separated using a catalyst and condenser, with oxygen and then extracted via electrolysis.

In real applications, the methane and hydrogen by-products would then be recycled through the system.

“Our experiments show that the rig is scalable and can operate in an almost completely self-sufficient closed loop, without human intervention and without clogging,” Michèle Lavagna, an aerospace engineer at Politecnico di Milano, who led the experiments, said in a release. .

Half of the soil on the moon is made up of silicon and iron oxides, about a quarter of which themselves are oxygen.

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A mineral mixture that simulates lunar soil before (left) and after it has evaporated at temperatures over 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit. Half of the soil on the moon consists of oxygen-rich silicon oxides and iron oxides.

Lavagna was part of a consortium of scientists from the European Space Agency, the Italian Space Agency and the German space company OHB who demonstrated a prototype this week at the annual meeting of the Europlanet Science Congress, which was held virtually.

The two-step process is similar to the one already used on Earth, but has been modified to work with a mineral mixture that approximates the moon’s surface.

The solid by-product created by the process is rich in silica and metals and can be further refined for other uses, the scientists said.

“The ability to have efficient water and oxygen production facilities on site is fundamental to human exploration and to allow high-quality science to work directly on the moon,” Lavagna said in the press release.

In the second part of the two-step process, water is separated from the resulting gases using a catalyst and condenser, after which oxygen is extracted via electrolysis.  Pictured: A prototype device demonstrated this week at a virtual meeting of the Europlanet Science Congress

In the second part of the two-step process, water is separated from the resulting gases using a catalyst and condenser, after which oxygen is extracted via electrolysis. Pictured: A prototype device demonstrated this week at a virtual meeting of the Europlanet Science Congress

“These lab experiments have deepened our understanding of every step of the process,” she added. “It’s not the end of the story, but it’s a very good starting point.”

This week’s demonstration is just the latest in a series of experiments conducted “to optimize furnace temperature, the ratio of the mixtures of gases and other factors, according to the release.”

The researcher’s analysis shows that processing the soil in small batches at the highest possible temperature produces the best results.

vananalysis indicated that processing the soil in small batches at the highest possible temperature yields the best results.  Pictured: An artistic rendering of an outpost on the moon

The researcher’s analysis shows that processing the soil in small batches at the highest possible temperature produces the best results. Pictured: An artistic rendering of an outpost on the moon

Other researchers have also worked to extract oxygen from the lunar floor.

In 2017, Thorsten Denk, an aerospace engineer at Spain’s Plataforma Solar de Almeria, revealed his plans for a reactor that would do the job.

Denk’s device only requires hydrogen taken from Earth for its first use — after the first few hours, it would recycle the element, drastically reducing its cargo weight.

He claimed his machine made enough oxygen and water to feed six to eight astronauts.

Engineers will have to develop ways to provide oxygen, water and even shelter on the moon that don't require heavy equipment.  The cost of putting something in space is about $10,000 per pound, according to NASA

Engineers will have to develop ways to provide oxygen, water and even shelter on the moon that don’t require heavy equipment. The cost of putting something in space is about $10,000 per pound, according to NASA

Water is already abundant on the moon, albeit in a different state.

A 2018 study published in Nature Geoscience determined that water, in the form of OH — a more reactive relative of H2O — was all over the lunar surface rather than clustered at the poles.

That means future lunar colonies can harvest water without having to get it from the Earth.

Engineers developing ways to supply the moon with oxygen, water, shelter and other necessities are hampered by how difficult and expensive it is to get materials into space.

The cost of putting something in space is about $10,000 per pound, according to NASA.

Last week, scientists at the University of Manchester unveiled designs for a concrete-like building material made in part from human blood, urine and sweat.

Scientists at the University of Manchester have developed a glue-like substance made with human blood and other bodily fluids that can create highly durable concrete on the moon

Scientists at the University of Manchester have developed a glue-like substance made with human blood and other bodily fluids that can create highly durable concrete on the moon

Mixed with Earth on Mars or the Moon, the glue-like substance called AstroCrete would create a building material 300 percent stronger than regular concrete, according to their report, Materials Today Bio magazine.

Each astronaut could produce enough feces to expand its habitat to support an additional crew member.

The team calculated that a crew of six astronauts could produce more than 1,100 pounds of high-strength AstroCrete during a two-year Mars mission.

The process is not perfected, as it takes 200 pounds of concrete to build just one square foot of a single-storey house.

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