Surface of the Moon with Earth in the background

Fuel and oxygen could be harvested from lunar soil to aid Moon base

Image credit: Dreamstime

Soil on the Moon can be converted into carbon dioxide, oxygen and fuels that could be used to help support greater exploration of its surface, scientists have said.

Researchers from Nanjing University in China are hoping to design a system that takes advantage of lunar soil and solar radiation, the two most abundant resources on the Moon.

After analysing the lunar soil brought back by China’s Chang’e 5 spacecraft, their team found the sample contains compounds including iron-rich and titanium-rich substances that could work as a catalyst to make desired products such as oxygen using sunlight and carbon dioxide.

With China and Russia announcing a collaboration to build a research station on the surface of the Moon last year, the discovery could help to provide vital resources by harvesting local resources instead of relying on expensive cargo drops from rocket launches.

The team proposed an “extra-terrestrial photosynthesis” strategy which uses lunar soil to electrolyse water extracted from the Moon and from astronauts’ breathing exhausts into oxygen and hydrogen powered by sunlight.

The carbon dioxide exhaled by Moon inhabitants is also collected and combined with hydrogen from water electrolysis during a hydrogenation process catalysed by lunar soil.

The process yields hydrocarbons such as methane, which could be used as fuel. The strategy uses no external energy other than sunlight to produce a variety of desirable products, such as water, oxygen and fuel that could support life on a Moon base, the researchers said.

The team is looking for an opportunity to test the system in space, likely with China’s future crewed lunar missions.

“We use in-situ environmental resources to minimise rocket payload and our strategy provides a scenario for a sustainable and affordable extra-terrestrial living environment,” scientist Yingfang Yao said.

While the catalytic efficiency of lunar soil is less than catalysts available on Earth, the team is testing different approaches to improve the design, such as melting the lunar soil into a nanostructured high-entropy material, which is a better catalyst.

Previously, scientists have proposed many strategies for extra-terrestrial survival. Most designs require energy sources from Earth. For example, Nasa’s Perseverance Mars rover brought an instrument that can use carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere to make oxygen, but it’s powered by a nuclear battery onboard.

“In the near future, we will see the crewed spaceflight industry developing rapidly,” Yao added. “Just like the ‘Age of Sail’ in the 1600s, when hundreds of ships head to the sea, we will enter an ‘Age of Space.’ If we want to carry out large-scale exploration of the extra-terrestrial world, we will need to think of ways to reduce payload, meaning relying on as little supplies from Earth as possible and using extra-terrestrial resources instead.”

E&T recently looked at what it will take for humans to live on the Moon and Mars, with engineers investigating ways to build with lunar dust. 

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