One of the biggest challenges for humanity as we move further out into the solar system will be learning to “live off the land” rather than lugging materials with us. Blue Origin now says it’s made major progress in that direction by making solar panels out of moon dust.
Establishing a more permanent human presence beyond Earth’s orbit will require huge amounts of material, both to build infrastructure and provide life support for astronauts. Given the enormous cost of space launches, using Earth-bound resources for this is likely to be unsustainable.
That’s led to a growing focus on “in-situ resource utilization” (ISRU), which refers to making use of materials found in space or on other celestial bodies to do things like build shelters, generate oxygen, or provide water. One key challenge is generating enough electricity to support long-term settlements without having to ship bulky power equipment from Earth.
Blue Origin, the space technology company founded by Jeff Bezos, says it’s closer to solving this problem after demonstrating that it can make solar cells out of simulated moon dust. The company’s approach, which it dubs “Blue Alchemist,” uses a process known as “molten regolith electrolysis” to generate all of the key ingredients needed for a working solar panel.
“To make long-term presence on the moon viable, we need abundant electrical power,” the company said in a blog post. “Our approach, Blue Alchemist, can scale indefinitely, eliminating power as a constraint anywhere on the moon.”
The idea isn’t particularly new. The fine dust found on the surface of the moon, known as regolith, contains all of the key ingredients required for making solar panels, including silicon, iron, magnesium, and aluminum.
But moon dust isn’t easy to come by, so to develop their approach the researchers first had to make their own. They created a simulated lunar soil that is chemically and mineralogically the same as the real thing, and even accounts for the variable size of grains.
They then used molten regolith electrolysis, which is an established process, to extract the key ingredients they were interested in. This involves first melting the lunar soil by heating it to above 1,600 degrees Celsius (2,912 degrees Fahrenheit) and then sticking a probe into it that passes a current through the molten mass.
This causes the iron to separate out first, followed by silicon and then aluminum. Because most of these metals are found as oxides in the regolith, it also creates oxygen as a byproduct, which could be used for both astronaut life support or to help power rockets.
Crucially, Blue Origin’s approach produces silicon with 99.99 percent purity, which is critical if it is to be used in solar panels. Most interestingly though, they’ve found a way to use the byproducts of the molten regolith electrolysis process to create glass covers to protect the solar cells from the harsh lunar environment.
The blog announcing the news revealed that the company has been able to produce solar cells this way since 2021. And they aren’t the only ones—space manufacturing company Lunar Resources told The Verge that they’ve been doing the same for several years now.
But while proving that the concept works using simulated moon dust on Earth is an impressive step, actually doing it in space presents a lot of other challenges. One of the biggest is simply getting the required equipment there in the first place. Lunar Resources chief technology officer Alex Ignatiev told The Verge that the reactor they use to heat the regolith weighs about a ton.
That’s still likely to be much more weight-efficient than shipping hundreds of solar panels from Earth, though. So while it may take some time to get the idea off the ground, this could be a major step towards enabling a more sustainable human presence on the lunar surface.
Image Credit: NASA