Lunar soil can be used to generate oxygen and fuel for Moon astronauts

Artist’s impression of what a moon base might look like. Scientists investigating whether lunar resources can be used to aid human exploration on the moon or beyond have reported that lunar soil contains active compounds that can convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and fuels. Credit: ESA – P. Carril

Soil on the moon contains active compounds capable of converting carbon dioxide into oxygen and fuel, according to a new study by Chinese scientists and published May 5, 2022 in the journal Joule. They are currently investigating whether lunar resources can be used to facilitate human exploration on the moon or beyond.

Nanjing University materials scientists Yingfang Yao and Zhigang Zou hope to design a system that takes advantage of lunar soil and solar radiation, the two most abundant resources on the moon. After analyzing the lunar soil brought back by the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e 5, their research team discovered that the sample contained compounds, including substances rich in iron and titanium, which could act as a catalyst to make products. desired such as oxygen using sunlight and carbon dioxide.

Lunar soil sample

This photograph shows a sample of lunar soil returned from the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e 5. 1 credit

Based on the observation, the team came up with an “alien photosynthesis” strategy. Primarily, the system uses lunar soil to electrolyze water extracted from the moon and astronauts’ breathing exhaust into sunlight-powered oxygen and hydrogen. The carbon dioxide exhaled by the inhabitants of the moon is also collected and combined with hydrogen from the electrolysis of water in a hydrogenation process catalyzed by the lunar soil.

The process produces hydrocarbons such as methane, which could be used as fuel. The strategy uses no external energy but sunlight to produce a variety of desirable products such as water, oxygen and fuel that could sustain life on a lunar base, the researchers say. The team is looking for an opportunity to test the system in space, likely with China’s future crewed lunar missions.

How Lunar Soil Can Be a Catalyst

This diagram shows how lunar soil may function as a catalyst for extraterrestrial photosynthesis to produce the oxygen and fuels necessary for long-term survival on the moon. 1 credit

“We use in situ environmental resources to minimize rocket payload, and our strategy provides a scenario for a sustainable and affordable extraterrestrial living environment,” Yao said.

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

This video shows the photovoltaic electrolysis of water catalyzed by the lunar soil. 1 credit

Previously, scientists have proposed many strategies for extraterrestrial survival. But most designs require energy sources from Earth. For example, " data-gt-translate-attributes="[{" attribute="">Nasaperseverance " data-gt-translate-attributes="[{" attribute="">March Rover has brought an instrument that can use carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere to make oxygen, but it’s powered by an onboard nuclear battery.

Research team with lunar soil sample

This photograph shows the Nanjing University research team holding the lunar soil sample. 1 credit

“In the near future, we will see the crewed spaceflight industry develop rapidly,” Yao said. “Just like the ‘Age of Sail’ in the 1600s, when hundreds of ships head out to sea, we will enter an ‘Age of Space’. But if we want to conduct large-scale exploration of the extraterrestrial world, we will have to think of ways to reduce the payload, i.e. rely on as few supplies from Earth as possible and use instead extraterrestrial resources.

Reference: “Extraterrestrial Photosynthesis by Chang’E-5 Lunar Soil” by Yingfang Yao, Lu Wang, Xi Zhu, Wenguang Tu, Yong Zhou, Rulin Liu, Junchuan Sun, Bo Tao, Cheng Wang, Xiwen Yu, Linfeng Gao, Yuan Cao, Bing Wang, Zhaosheng Li, Wei Yao, Yujie Xiong, Mengfei Yang, Weihua Wang, and Zhigang Zou, May 5, 2022, Joule.
DOI: 10.1016/j.joule.2022.04.011

This work was supported by National Key Research and Development Program of China, Major Research Plan of National Natural Science Foundation of China, National Natural Science Foundation of China, Basic Research Funds for Universities power plants, the introduction program of Guangdong Innovative and Entrepreneurial Teams, the Natural Science Foundation of Jiangsu Province. Wuhan National Optoelectronics Laboratory Open Fund, Hefei National Laboratory for Microscale Physical Sciences, Civil Aerospace Technology Research Project: In Situ Extraterrestrial Water Extraction and Photochemical Hydrogen Synthesis and oxygen, and the Foshan Xianhu Laboratory of Advanced Energy Guangdong Science and Technology Laboratory.