Pioneer Astronautics Receives NASA Funding to Develop Lunar Technologies

NASA has selected Bob Zubrin’s Pioneer Astronautics for funding to develop a new battery and gas spectrometer specially designed for use on the moon. The awards under the space agency’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I program are worth up to $125,000 apiece over six months.

“The Lunar Flow Battery (LFB) is a scalable, long-duration energy storage solution featuring minimum capacity fade over many cycles that uses electrolytes derived from lunar regolith to minimize launch mass,” the Colorado-based company said in its proposal summary.

“What makes the LFB distinct from other flow batteries is its use of locally available resources to produce the electrolyte solutions, thereby reducing the launch mass,” the summary added. “Lunar-sourced iron, titanium, sulfur, oxygen, and water provide the bulk electrolyte solutions while the more sophisticated components such as membranes, pumps, and electrodes are transported from Earth.”

The Lunar Exploration Gas Spectrometer (LEGS) will be used to study the gas composition of lunar regolith.

“In the LEGS a 2.5 GHz solid state microwave transmitter positioned on a downward pointing horn is deployed by a lunar lander or rover using a long boom (e.g. 1-2 m) to set it down on the lunar surface, and then beams power into the regolith using its microwave transmitter,” the company said.

The two proposal summaries follow.

Lunar Flow Battery
Subtopic Title: Long Duration Lunar Energy Storage and Discharge

Pioneer Astronautics
Lakewood, CO

Principal Investigator

Dr. Steven Fatur

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 2
End: 4

Technical Abstract

The Lunar Flow Battery (LFB) is a scalable, long-duration energy storage solution featuring minimum capacity fade over many cycles that uses electrolytes derived from lunar regolith to minimize launch mass. The LFB operates by storing two separate solutions of redox-active species which are pumped past the cathode and anode respectively to produce a current. By pumping the redox-active fluids across the electrodes, the energy and power can be scaled independently.

What makes the LFB distinct from other flow batteries is its use of locally available resources to produce the electrolyte solutions, thereby reducing the launch mass. Lunar-sourced iron, titanium, sulfur, oxygen, and water provide the bulk electrolyte solutions while the more sophisticated components such as membranes, pumps, and electrodes are transported from Earth. Compared to alternatives such as Li-ion batteries, the LFB has vastly superior cycle life and the energy storage is readily scalable, making it an ideal solution for long-term, stationary storage over the lunar day/night cycle.

By using locally available materials to produce the redox-active species and with no need for replacement cells for dozens of years, the energy storage capacity is high relative to the total launched mass. The Phase I program will investigate the selective dissolution of ilmenite (FeTiO3), an ore available in high concentrations in lunar mare basalts, using sulfuric acid to produce iron and titanium sulfate electrolyte solutions and incorporate these solutions into a functional redox flow cell.

This cell will be cycle tested to quantify its performance with regards to capacity fade and specific energy while any operational issues or degradation pathways will be addressed.

Potential NASA Applications

The principal future application of the LFB is to provide long-duration energy storage for a permanent lunar base. The LFB is ideally suited for such a remote outpost with long day/night cycles where locally available resources can provide the basic materials to produce a large-scale energy storage system with a lower launch mass than alternatives. This system could be scaled up or multiplied to provide power to any number of long-duration scientific platforms, human habitats, and ISRU processing systems.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The LFB technology could provide an alternative solution for large-scale remote storage where access to resources is limited. Alternatively, the development of sulfuric acid processing of mixed metal oxides could provide an improved method for the production and recycling of titanium dioxide as a pigment for the coatings industry, opening up ilmenite deposits for cheaper TiO2 production.

Duration: 6 months

Lunar Exploration Gas Spectrometer
Subtopic Title: Payloads for Lunar Resources: Volatiles

Principal Investigator
Robert Zubrin

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 1
End: 4

Technical Abstract

The Lunar Exploration Gas Spectrometer (LEGS) is an instrument for studying the gas composition of lunar regolith. In the LEGS a 2.5 GHz solid state microwave transmitter positioned on a downward pointing horn is deployed by a lunar lander or rover using a long boom (e.g. 1-2 m) to set it down on the lunar surface, and then beams power into the regolith using its microwave transmitter.

The microwaves directed down onto and into the ground contained under the horn, heating regolith to depths of several tens of centimeters. As a result, gases will be evolved from the cold subsurface regolith into the horn, where their composition will be analyzed by a near-infrared ~1 to 2.4-micron spectrometer mounted horn, and looking through a sapphire window into the interior of the horn illuminated by a tungsten lamp, enabling transmission spectra of evolved gases to be obtained.

These instruments will provide qualitative and quantitative data on volatiles, potentially including water, hydrogen, helium, CO2, CO, ammonia hydrocarbons, and other species as they evolve from the subsurface over time. Since gases released by upper layers of regolith will reach the horn first, this procedure will also provide composition as a function of depth.

Once gas emission ceases, the horn is lifted by the rod and placed on a new location, where the process is repeated. The LEGS deployment will involve very little disturbance to lunar soils prior to analysis, thereby preventing the accidental release of lightly-bound volatiles that is thought to be significant even following gentle handling. In the proposed program, a full scale working model of the LEGS, including horn, microwave transmitter, and spectrometer, will be built and tested in Pioneer Astronautics

Potential NASA Applications

The LEGS program will provide NASA with a key technology finding volatiles on the Moon, which represent a tremendous resource for human exploration. The data produced by the LEGS would be invaluable for lunar science itself, providing essential information for understanding the origin and history of the Moon and similar bodies no doubt present in orbit around numerous planets in other solar systems. LEGS could also be used on Mars, Phobos, Deimos, asteroids, moons of the outer planets, Mercury, Pluto and even comets.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The LEGS be used on Earth without major modification employing its IR spectrometer to determine amounts of volatiles, including trade contaminants, in the soil. It thus represents an instrument with broad potential utility for geology, resource exploration, and environmental remediation.

Duration: 6 months