NASA Selects In-Situ Resource Utilization SBIR Phase II Projects

NASA has selected two proposals related to in-situ resource utilization for funding under its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The space agency will enter into negotiations with two companies for contracts worth up to $750,000 apiece over two years.

The selected proposals include:

  • In-Situ Ethylene and Methane Production from CO2 as Plastic Precursors — Opus 12, Inc., Berkeley, CA
  • Extraterrestrial Metals Processing — Pioneer Astronautics, Lakewood, CO

“Opus 12 has developed a breakthrough technology that will enable the synthesis of plastics from CO2 and water, which are available in situ in extraterrestrial environments,” the company said in its application. “Our electrochemical device can take water and CO2 from the Martian atmosphere and transform these molecules into polymer precursors (ethylene and/or methane). This opens up a variety of space-based manufacturing applications, including 3D printing to manufacture tools and building materials in space.”

While Opus 12 is focused on plastics, Pioneer Astronautics’ proposal is

“The Extraterrestrial Metals Processing (EMP) system produces iron, silicon, and light metals from Mars, Moon, or asteroid resources in support of advanced human space exploration,” the company’s proposal states. “Refractory oxides and minor constituents such as sulfur, phosphorus, and alkaline earth oxides are also generated as byproducts and can be used for the refining of finished goods, thereby further reducing dependence on Earth-based consumables.”

Descriptions of the proposals follow.

Proposal Title: In-Situ Ethylene and Methane Production from CO2 as Plastic Precursors

Small Business Concern
Opus 12, Inc.
Berkeley, CA

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Etosha Cave

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 4

Technical Abstract

Opus 12 has redesigned the cathode of the commercially available PEM water electrolyzer such that it can support the reduction of carbon dioxide into ethylene and/or methane and suppress the competing hydrogen reaction. Methane and ethylene are well known polymer precursors that can be used as starting material to make plastics in extraterrestrial environments. PEM water electrolyzers have already been proven space worthy and are commercially available at various scales. Our innovation enables the creation of polyethylene and other polymers such as polyhydroxyalkanoates from the most basic starting materials: CO2, water and electricity. In Phase II, Opus 12 will continue to improve performance of the CO2 conversion process and build a working prototype of ethylene and methane production that will serve as the basis for a future commercial device.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

Currently, materials for manufacturing in space have to be shipped from Earth at significant cost. Sending material to Mars costs $20,000 per kilogram, and this cost has poor mass scaling for large payloads, as the amount of fuel required increases exponentially with payload mass.

Opus 12 has developed a breakthrough technology that will enable the synthesis of plastics from CO2 and water, which are available in situ in extraterrestrial environments. Our electrochemical device can take water and CO2 from the Martian atmosphere and transform these molecules into polymer precursors (ethylene and/or methane). This opens up a variety of space-based manufacturing applications, including 3D printing to manufacture tools and building materials in space. Producing plastics in space can furnish the building blocks for extraterrestrial built environments and can be a major step in furthering humankind?s ability to explore and survive on Mars and beyond.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Ethylene and methane are two of the most widely available organic compounds. Ethylene has a global market of over $100 billion. Approximately half of all ethylene produced is polymerized to polyethylene. Based on customer interviews, existing producers of ethylene and ethylene-related equipment, e.g., Total Energy, Chart Industries, SABIC, have expressed interest in alternative feedstocks for ethylene production. While the natural gas fracking boom in the U.S. has created a glut of ethane feedstock, in other geographies, the supply of ethane is restricted, and SABIC is seeking new ways to increase its ethylene production at existing facilities. Methane can also be used to produce polymers, such as polyhydroxyalkanoates, which have the added benefit of being biodegradable. Many players see a growing consumer demand for environmentally-friendly plastics, and polymers made from recycled CO2 would be a compelling product to market to consumers.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Conversion
  • Essential Life Resources (Oxygen, Water, Nutrients)
  • Fuels/Propellants
  • In Situ Manufacturing
  • Polymers
  • Storage

Proposal Title: Extraterrestrial Metals Processing

Small Business Concern
Pioneer Astronautics
Lakewood, CO

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Mark Berggren

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 4
End: 5

Technical Abstract

The Extraterrestrial Metals Processing (EMP) system produces iron, silicon, and light metals from Mars, Moon, or asteroid resources in support of advanced human space exploration. Refractory oxides and minor constituents such as sulfur, phosphorus, and alkaline earth oxides are also generated as byproducts and can be used for the refining of finished goods, thereby further reducing dependence on Earth-based consumables.

Iron is produced via reduction of oxides by hydrogen or carbon monoxide. Silicon, ferrosilicon, and high-purity fumed silicon monoxide are generated via carbothermal reduction of silica-containing resources. Reductants are generated using established ISRU-related technologies including electrolysis, the reverse water gas shift reaction, the Boudouard carbon deposition reaction, and combinations thereof. During Phase I, magnesium metal was successfully produced via silicothermic reduction.

Alternative light metal reduction methods will be evaluated and compared to the baseline silicothermic reduction of magnesium oxide for structural applications, replacement parts, and manufacturing hardware on Mars. A high-quality fumed silicon monoxide product can be further oxidized and used for production of clear glass. Upon reduction with carbon, SiO can also be used to make high purity silicon for the production of semiconductor materials using doping agents such as phosphorus.

The Phase II effort will expand on the findings of the Phase I work with demonstration of an end-to-end system to produce iron and steel at a rate on the order of one kilogram per day. Example parts will be made using casting, sintering, or advanced manufacturing methods. In parallel with the demonstration of end-to-end iron production during Phase II, light metals manufacturing methods evaluated during Phase I will be further refined. Small-scale production of light metals will be demonstrated during Phase II.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The primary application of EMP is for production of iron, silicon, and light metals as well as refractory metal oxides and byproducts including phosphorus and oxygen from Mars, Moon, or asteroid resources for manufacturing in support of advanced human space exploration. The EMP product suite includes many useful materials that will expand exploration and colonization capabilities while substantially reducing the costs and risks of bringing supplies from Earth. Many EMP product streams are suitable for use in advanced casting or additive manufacturing methods to allow for efficient use of resources.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

One potential terrestrial EMP application is the production of high-grade silicon metal or ferrosilicon. The hydrogen-enhanced carbon monoxide disproportionation method employed in the EMP system for reductant production enables high rates of carbon deposition onto pure silica in the absence of a metal catalyst. Direct carbon deposition from CO generated during carbothermal reduction integrated with RWGS-electrolysis modules would reduce the purchase of carbon for the process while significantly reducing overall carbon emissions compared to current practice. The carbon deposited by this method would be of very high purity. Such processing would have particular application and potential for manufacturing cost savings if carbon emissions become regulated. In a complete closed-loop system including a reverse water gas shift and electrolysis unit, silicon or ferrosilicon manufacturing could be accomplished with virtually no carbon emissions.

The EMP techniques have additional potential for the processing of lower-grade ores and feed stocks including other process residues and wastes. As higher-grade ores on Earth are more-difficult to find and mine, feed costs for existing technologies rise. The EMP can help to reduce overall processing costs by enabling the use of non-conventional feed stocks and the non-conventional metal oxide reduction techniques proposed for the Phase II effort.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Ceramics
  • In Situ Manufacturing
  • Metallics
  • Minerals
  • Processing Methods
  • Prototyping
  • Resource Extraction

  • Vladislaw

    I hope NASA funds more In-Situ startup projects so when we do land we have a lot of COTS (commercial off the shelf) hardware to take with.