The production of constant energy to supply future lunar habitats is one of the key points of the conquest of space. We can make power systems on the Moon directly from materials that exist everywhere on the surface, without special substances brought from Earth.
With this in mind, Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin has announced a technology that can make solar cells and transmission wire from moon dust. The technology, dubbed Blue Alchemist, can scale indefinitely, eliminating power as a constraint anywhere on the Moon.
To demonstrate their technology, they manufactured a solar cell prototype from lunar regolith simulants without carbon emissions, water, or toxic ingredients.
The Blue Origin team started by making regolith simulants that are chemically and mineralogically equivalent to lunar regolith, accounting for representative lunar variability in grain size and bulk chemistry. They developed and qualified an efficient, scalable, and contactless process for melting and moving molten regolith that is robust to natural variations in regolith properties on the Moon.
Blue Origin’s proprietary transport subsystem moves and separates molten material at temperatures above 1600 degrees Celsius in a controlled and power-efficient manner while withstanding the high-temperature, corrosive environment. By passing a current through the molten regolith, Molten regolith electrolysis extracts iron, then silicon, and finally aluminum from the oxygen to which they are bound. The rising oxygen bubbles in one of the reactors show metals and metalloids being separated from oxygen. Oxygen for propulsion and life support is a byproduct.
The company claims Blue Alchemist technology purifies silicon to more than 99.999% – this level of purity is required to make efficient solar cells. While typical silicon purification methods on Earth use large amounts of toxic and explosive chemicals, the new process uses just sunlight and the silicon from the reactor.
Solar cells need cover glass for protection from the harsh lunar environment; without it, they would only last for days. The new technique uses only molten regolith electrolysis byproducts to make cover glass that enables lunar lifetimes exceeding a decade.
In addition, the Blue Origin team claims that their technology manufactures solar cells with zero carbon emissions, no water, and no toxic ingredients or other chemicals.
Blue Origin’s goal of producing solar power using only lunar resources is aligned with NASA’s highest priority Moon-to-Mars infrastructure development objective.