With the aim of allowing astronauts to live off the land as much as possible when they return to the Moon, NASA has awarded Blue Origin a US$35-million Tipping Point contract to develop the company’s Blue Alchemist process to make solar cells out of lunar soil.
The biggest bottleneck to establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon and beyond is the staggering cost of sending equipment and supplies from Earth. NASA and other space agencies believe that the best way to overcome this is to use local resources as much as possible to manufacture what’s needed.
Under development since 2021, Blue Alchemist is an example of this. The basic concept is to develop a complete process that takes the lunar soil, more formally known as the regolith, at one end and spits out complete solar cells and other products at the other.
Using a simulated lunar regolith raw material created on Earth that mimics the grain size as well as the elements in the original, Blue Alchemist uses a series of steps to melt the material at 1,600 °C (2.912 °F) and then remove the various elements using electrolysis and other methods, with a contactless system moving the molten material from one stage to the next. All of these can be replicated under lunar conditions.
Through the process, oxygen is boiled off and collected. Metals are then extracted, including iron, aluminum, and silicon. The end product is silicon that is more than 99.999% pure, suitable for solar cells, and does not need toxic or explosive methods to produce. Even the glass used to coat the cells made from the silicon is a product of Blue Alchemist. According to Blue Origin, this, along with being emission-free, also makes it a more environmentally friendly system for use on Earth.
“Harnessing the vast resources in space to benefit Earth is part of our mission, and we’re inspired and humbled to receive this investment from NASA to advance our innovation,” said Pat Remias, vice president, Capabilities Directorate of Space Systems Development. “First we return humans to the Moon, then we start to ‘live off the land.'”
The contract is aimed at an autonomous demonstration of Blue Alchemist by 2026.
Source: Blue Origin