NASA Funds R&D Projects to Extract Oxygen, Metals From Lunar Regolith

Apollo 17 Harrison “Jack” Schmitt on the moon in December 1972. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA has selected six research and development projects for funding that are focused on extracting oxygen and metals from lunar regolith to support the Artemis program.

NASA decided to award Small Business Innovation Research funding worth up to $150,000 apiece to the following companies: A-Terra LLC of Keizer, Ore.; Blueshift, LLC. of Broomfield, Colo.; Faraday Technology, Inc. of Englewood, Ohio; Hedgefog Research, Inc. of San Pedro, Calif.; Paragon Space Development Corporation of Tucson, Ariz.; and Pioneer Astronautics of Lakewood, Colo.

A-Terra’s project focuses on overcoming technical hurdles to extracting oxygen from lunar regolith using vacuum pyrolysis.

“This project provides a supporting technology for vacuum pyrolysis, by utilizing a solid-oxide oxygen ion transport approach, which intends to address the technical challenges identified above, to contribute to advancing the current TRL of the vacuum pyrolysis technology. Oxygen separation using a solid oxide electrolyte for vacuum pyrolysis has never been reported in the literature and U.S. patents,” the proposal summary said.

Blueshift is focused on a different method to extract oxygen from lunar soil.

“Blueshift, LLC doing business as Outward Technologies…proposes to develop a regolith feed and removal system for oxygen extraction from regolith with non-contact reaction temperature measurement and rapid oxygen content measurement in regolith upstream and downstream of the reaction zone,” the company said.

Faraday has teamed with RoCo Global of Pittsburgh, Pa., to “demonstrate an ionic liquid-assisted electrochemical extraction process to recover metals and oxygen from lunar regolith. The advantages of this method include: High-rate regolith digestion; High purity metal recovery; High purity oxygen recovery; Low temperature operation < 150°C; Low energy requirement; and, Scalable manufacturing platform. In Phase I, Faraday and RoCo will optimize the ionic liquid to rapidly digest metal silicates like feldspar.”

Hedgefog Research is developing a sensor for use in extracting oxygen from regolith.

“Hedgefog Research Inc. (HFR) proposes to develop a multicolor Pyrometer for Regolith-extracted Oxygen (PyRO) for use in vacuum-pumped foundries designed to extract oxygen from lunar regolith on the surface of the moon. The flexible design of the sensor will allow for accurate temperature determination for systems with well-known emissivity values as well as accurate high-temperature measurement for systems in which the temperature- and wavelength-dependent emissivities are unknown. Crucially for this application, the sensor will be constructed to operate in a hermetic, non-outgassing package under significant radiant heating loads and a highly corrosive environment without polluting extracted oxygen/water/metals,” the proposal summary said.

Paragon’s project is focused on non-water volatiles.

“Non-water volatiles (NWVs) found co-located with water in lunar permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) are both a potential source of risk to water processing equipment and a potential source of value to spaceflight applications. Paragon seeks to refine and analyze process technology and architecture concepts to separate and handle lunar NWVs, along with processes to concentrate ammonia from the NWVs and generate useful products such as refrigerant, propellant, and fertilizer,” the company said.

Pioneer Astronautics project involves extracting aluminum from waste left over from oxygen and iron extraction.

“The ALTAWS (Alkaline Low-Temperature Aluminum from Waste Slag) process proposes to take what is currently process waste from oxygen and iron extraction in the Pioneer Astronautics MMOST (Moon to Mars Oxygen and Steel Technology).  Slag and beneficiation waste from MMOST will be targeted as ALTAWS feed, though ALTAWS as a first processing step feeding MMOST will also be examined.  Ultimately the ALTAWS technology will enable greater oxygen extraction than the MMOST process alone, while also providing valuable aluminum and silicon feedstocks for a greater NASA lunar presence,” the proposal said.

Full project summaries follow.

High Purity Oxygen Separation from a Pyrolysis Gas Mixture by Rapid Solid Oxide Ion Transport
Subtopic: Extraction of Oxygen, Metal, and Water from Lunar Regolith

A-Terra LLC
Keizer, Ore.

Principal Investigator: Jinichiro Nakano

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 3
End: 4

Duration: 6 Months

Technical Abstract

With the Artemis program, NASA plans to land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. The need for oxygen extraction from lunar regolith has been identified by STMD (Space Technology Mission Directorate). As knowledge about lunar water recourses is limited, alternative pathways to extract oxygen are requested, recognizing the need to make progress on the technology required to extract oxygen from dry lunar regolith. The entire lunar surface is covered with regolith, which can be 4 – 15 m deep depending on locations. As a whole, it holds more than 40 wt.% oxygen (O) as solid oxides with SiO2 being the largest (up to 53 wt.% SiO2). Successful oxygen extraction from lunar regolith resources would benefit for life support and propulsion needs.

Oxygen extraction from lunar regolith by vacuum pyrolysis has been demonstrated and considered to be one of the ideal options because no reagents and reductants are required, thus needing minimal consumables. Despite its large oxygen production potential, it is reported that vacuum pyrolysis needs to overcome several technical hurdles to be commercialized. The following four key technical challenges are identified that have been impeding technology readiness level (TRL) advancement of the vacuum pyrolysis approaches.

This project provides a supporting technology for vacuum pyrolysis, by utilizing a solid-oxide oxygen ion transport approach, which intends to address the technical challenges identified above, to contribute to advancing the current TRL of the vacuum pyrolysis technology. Oxygen separation using a solid oxide electrolyte for vacuum pyrolysis has never been reported in the literature and U.S. patents.

Potential NASA Applications

The proposed technology that extracts high purity oxygen from a complex volatile mixture during vacuum pyrolysis is applicable to NASA’s lunar exploration needs (Artemis Program).

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The proposed technology that extracts high purity oxygen from a complex volatile mixture during vacuum pyrolysis and it also effectively produces high purity metals such as silicon as byproduct to be used by metallurgical industries.

Feed and Removal of Regolith for Oxygen Extraction
Subtopic: Extraction of Oxygen, Metal, and Water from Lunar Regolith

Blueshift, LLC
Broomfield, Colo.

Principal Investigator: Andrew Brewer

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 3
End: 4

Duration: 6 months

Technical Abstract

Blueshift, LLC doing business as Outward Technologies is an early-stage startup developing critical In-situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) technologies for terrestrial and extraterrestrial applications. Outward Technologies proposes to develop a regolith feed and removal system for oxygen extraction from regolith with non-contact reaction temperature measurement and rapid oxygen content measurement in regolith upstream and downstream of the reaction zone.

The proposed regolith feed system may be integrated with multiple oxygen extraction methods to enable continuous feed of material into and out of the reaction zone while maintaining a pressure sealed reactor chamber. This Feed and Removal of Regolith for Oxygen Extraction (FaRROE) system implements two innovations that utilize the regolith itself for sealing the inlet and outlet of the reactor chamber while maintaining continuous flow.

Benefits of the proposed innovation include reactor chamber sealing using in situ materials (regolith) and minimal moving parts, non-contact reaction temperature measurement that can be used to control and optimize the oxygen extraction process, real-time O2 measurements that can indicate efficiency of the process and signal whether servicing is required, continuous processing of regolith for oxygen extraction rather than requiring a batch process, extraction process agnostic design for wide adaptability, and secondary resource utilization of extruded slag for part fabrication, long duration thermal energy storage, or for smelting and secondary refining.

The Phase I effort will focus on system design, prototype development of the regolith feed and removal subsystems, and feasibility demonstrations through prototype characterization testing, system analysis, and component evaluation.

Potential NASA Applications

The primary application within NASA’s roadmap is lunar and Martian oxygen production by enabling a continuous regolith feed and real-time process monitoring for oxygen extraction reactors (TX07.1). Additionally, once oxygen has been extracted from the regolith, FaRROE enables continuous extrusion of the processed slag which can then be used in mass production of mechanical and structural components in an extrusion-style 3D printer or casting process (TX07.2), and for thermal energy storage and transfer (TX07.1).

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Companies, federal agencies, and research institutions are exploring methods for industrial decarbonization by replacing fossil fuel power sources with concentrated solar power in traditional industrial processes. FaRROE supports these efforts by providing a low-cost, low-maintenance, and continuous feed system for high-temperature industrial processes fueled by concentrated solar power.

Ionic Liquid-Assisted Electrochemical Extraction of Metals and Oxygen from Lunar Regolith
Subtopic: Extraction of Oxygen, Metal, and Water from Lunar Regolith

Faraday Technology, Inc.
Englewood, Ohio

Principal Investigator: Santosh Vijapur

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 2
End: 3

Duration: 6 months

Technical Abstract

NASA’s in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) mission is to put in place a sustainable infrastructure that will allow human habitation on with Moon with minimal support from earth. One particular resource available on the lunar surface is regolith which consists of metals (Fe, Al, Si, …) bond to oxygen in the form of metal silicates. Extraction and recovery of metals and oxygen from the regolith could be used to support human life on the moon. For instance, recovered metals could be used to forge tools and components require for daily life, while the oxygen could be used life support and for propellants.

Faraday Technology and RoCo Global will demonstrate an ionic liquid-assisted electrochemical extraction process to recover metals and oxygen from lunar regolith. The advantages of this method include: High-rate regolith digestion; High purity metal recovery; High purity oxygen recovery; Low temperature operation < 150°C; Low energy requirement; and, Scalable manufacturing platform. In Phase I, Faraday and RoCo will optimize the ionic liquid to rapidly digest metal silicates like feldspar.

Next, Faraday will demonstrate and optimize the electrochemical recovery of metals and oxygen from the ionic liquid containing the digested metals and water. Finally, the electrochemical process will be used to regenerate the ionic liquid for digestion of additional metal silicates. The results of this study will provide a basis for transition planning, safety analysis, and an alpha scale semi-continuous system design.

Alignment of this technology for future NASA (Artemis) and commercial missions (Xelene) is critical for future integration and with the help our team we will assess safety and system robustness metrics required for Phase IIE/III. In Phase II we will build the semi-continuous ionic liquid-assisted electrochemical extraction system and optimize the recovery and regeneration parameters based on the input from NASA and our commercial partners.

Potential NASA Applications

The ability to utilize available resources on planets and moons is critical during extended space exploration. The proposed technology would support longer-term activities and eventual establishment of facilities on the lunar surface capable of supporting human missions, while reducing launch costs of excess materials. Oxygen recovered through this technology could be used to feed life support systems or as propellants. Simultaneous metal reclamation could be used to facilitate the formation of structures, tools, or components from Lunar soil.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The potential terrestrial customer could be in the metal smelting industries. Aluminum ore is transformed to Al by the Hall-Héroult which simultaneously outgasses large quantities of CO2. The ionic liquid-assisted electrochemical extraction process has the potential to eliminate greenhouse gas emission from Hall-Héroult. If successful the global Aluminum market size was $194 billion in 2021.

Pyrometer for Regolith-extracted Oxygen
Subtopic: Extraction of Oxygen, Metal, and Water from Lunar Regolith

Hedgefog Research, Inc.
San Pedro, Calif.

Principal Investigator: Daniel Engelhart

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

Technical Abstract

Hedgefog Research Inc. (HFR) proposes to develop a multicolor Pyrometer for Regolith-extracted Oxygen (PyRO) for use in vacuum-pumped foundries designed to extract oxygen from lunar regolith on the surface of the moon. The flexible design of the sensor will allow for accurate temperature determination for systems with well-known emissivity values as well as accurate high-temperature measurement for systems in which the temperature- and wavelength-dependent emissivities are unknown. Crucially for this application, the sensor will be constructed to operate in a hermetic, non-outgassing package under significant radiant heating loads and a highly corrosive environment without polluting extracted oxygen/water/metals.

While optimized for several methods of resource extraction from lunar highland regolith, PyRO is adaptable for non-contact temperature measurement of any practical system. The vacuum-compatible design and low size, weight and power requirements will allow for a portable version to be developed for use by human or robotic settlers beyond Earth. In Phase I, HFR will design system components of PyRO, evaluate their performance in non-contact temperature measurement, and down-select key components and enabling technologies for future development. We will also conduct a preliminary design for the fully-packaged PyRO prototype optimized for temperature stability and corrosion resistance.

Potential NASA Applications

Accurate non-contact temperature measurement is a ubiquitous requirement in all types of material processing. Any long-term extraterrestrial human settlement must necessarily have well-developed facilities for in-situ resource utilization. Optimizing these utilization processes requires careful control of all experimental parameters, including temperature. In addition, a compact, extremely rugged non-contact temperature sensor will find use in non-destructive component inspection and performance evaluation for high temperature devices.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

A pyrometer optimized for harsh vacuum operation will find use in an array of material processing and laboratory environments requiring high temperature measurements in vacuum. Commercially available pyrometers are custom tailored for chosen industrial processes. The inherent flexibility of PyRO and its tolerance to a variety of process conditions will make it an attractive commercial technology.

Non-Water Lunar Ice Mining
Subtopic: Extraction of Oxygen, Metal, and Water from Lunar Regolith

Paragon Space Development Corporation
Tucson, Ariz.

Principal Investigator: Jordan Holquist

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

Duration: 6 months

Technical Abstract

Non-water volatiles (NWVs) found co-located with water in lunar permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) are both a potential source of risk to water processing equipment and a potential source of value to spaceflight applications. Paragon seeks to refine and analyze process technology and architecture concepts to separate and handle lunar NWVs, along with processes to concentrate ammonia from the NWVs and generate useful products such as refrigerant, propellant, and fertilizer.

This project, titled Ammonia and Volatiles Accumulation in Lunar Architectures for Non-Water Capabilities furthering Human Exploration (AVALANCHE), targets the capture, concentration, and utilization of ammonia as the primary NWV with the highest potential impact value to sustained human lunar surface operations and generation of a lunar resource economy. While ammonia is the primary target, the separation and handling of other NWVs, such as mercury, and solid precipitates resulting from the possible reactions of NWVs with one another, such as ammonium sulfite, is considered a vital part of this proposal.

This proposal approaches the solution space from the In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) system architecture-level, which allows for the opportunity of evaluating technology and process concepts that would otherwise be non-viable as standalone solutions. Components and architectures will be simulated to evaluate their performance in a trade study that will allow assessment of the costs, risks mitigated, and value-added by various configurations.

This, along with a feasibility study and down-selection, will result in design and experiment plans for resulting component(s) and architecture to be developed and demonstrated within Phase II of the AVALANCHE project. The top-down system analysis methodology and the potential benefits resulting from these concepts to other systems is enabled by Paragon’s unique position as an industry leader in ISRU technology. 

Potential NASA Applications

The proposed technologies, processes, and architectures are applicable to the handling, separation, and concentration of NWV’s and the processing of ammonia to value-added products on the Moon. Potential NASA applications of technologies and concepts from the AVALANCHE project include risk mitigation to lunar water processing, provision of consumables for TCS refrigerant recharge, provision of propellant and make-up inert gas for habitats, and provision of fertilizer for crop production.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The technologies, processes, and architectures of the AVALANCHE project may be included in any commercial lunar or in-space mining and resource utilization plants. Ammonia refrigerant may be used to recharge thermal control systems of commercial surface or in-space vehicles or habitats. Hydrazine generated from the resulting system could be used to service or re-supply commercial in-space assets.

Alkaline Low-Temperature Aluminum from Waste Slag
Subtopic: Extraction of Oxygen, Metal, and Water from Lunar Regolith

Pioneer Astronautics
Lakewood, Colo.

Principal Investigator: Mike Riley

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

Duration: 6 months                      

Technical Abstract

The ALTAWS (Alkaline Low-Temperature Aluminum from Waste Slag) process proposes to take what is currently process waste from oxygen and iron extraction in the Pioneer Astronautics MMOST (Moon to Mars Oxygen and Steel Technology).  Slag and beneficiation waste from MMOST will be targeted as ALTAWS feed, though ALTAWS as a first processing step feeding MMOST will also be examined.  Ultimately the ALTAWS technology will enable greater oxygen extraction than the MMOST process alone, while also providing valuable aluminum and silicon feedstocks for a greater NASA lunar presence.

The ALTAWS process consists of two primary steps: 1) Alkaline extraction of alumina and silica, and 2) a molten electrolysis to reduce teh oxides to metals.  Aluminum is the primary target material, with side production of oxygen and silicon.  Process equipment will be modified from the MMOST program to help validate the ALTAWS process.  Process design, modelling, and optimization will also be used to determine both the feasibility of ALTAWS, as well as the most optimized configuration that combines the MMOST and ALTAWS processes to produce a combination of aluminum, silicon, iron, and oxygen from lunar regolith.

The results of the ALTAWS Phase I study will be the equipment, experimental data, and process design simulations fed into a feasibility study to determine the best usage of the technology moving forward in conjunction with MMOST. In Phase II, the process design from Ph I would be developed into an automated vacuum ALTAWS demonstration with the system build to be delivered to NASA. In Phase III, an optimized process would be developed into an ALTAWS flight experiment to be landed on the lunar surface.

Potential NASA Applications

The ALTAWS program will provide key technology to NASA for metals and oxygen extraction necessary for manned lunar base and permanent lunar presence.  The primary aluminum product is directly relevant as a construction material (structures and reflectors), with secondary oxygen being necessary for habitation and rocket fuel.  The silicon will be a valuable feedstock for further purification to be used in electronics and PV applications.  The aluminum and silicon would also find use in energy carrier/storage systems.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Waste reduction of existing Bayer processes through water and NaOH recycle being developed as part of ALTAWS.  Also, the advancement of the FFC Cambridge electrowinning process in the ALTAWS program could open doors for terrestrial commercial use targeting improvements in energy efficiency and product purity.