Blue Origin talks up technology that could eventually turn lunar dirt into solar cells

Blue Origin says that coin-sized solar cells like this one could be made from lunar material.  (Blue Background Photo)

Blue Origin says that coin-sized solar cells like this one could be made from lunar material. (Blue Background Photo)

Jeff Bezos’ space venture Blue Origin isn’t just working on rockets and space stations: the company based in Kent, Wash. also developing technology that could transform lunar soil into materials to produce solar cells and transmission wire for electricity.

That branch of Blue Origin’s advanced development programs highlights a blog item posted on the company’s website. The basic approach — called molten regolith electrolysis, or MRE — has been the subject of research for years, but Blue Origin says it has been refining the technique for the past two years.

“We can make power systems on the moon directly from materials that exist everywhere on the surface, without bringing special substances from Earth,” says the company. “We have pioneered the technology and shown all the steps. Our approach, Blue Alchemist, can scale indefinitely, eliminating power as a constraint anywhere on the moon.”

In recent years, Blue Origin and its subsidiary, Honeybee Robotics, have received funding from NASA for technologies that could convert raw materials from the moon or Mars into materials needed to support outlying settlements here – things that go from water. and oxygen to iron and silicon. The approach is called in-situ resource utilization, or ISRU.

Some of that funding has gone toward MRE experiments, but it’s unclear if NASA has something specific for the Blue Alchemist. “We are eager to work with NASA and the ISRU community to advance this technology to support Moon to Mars objectives,” a Blue Origin spokesperson told me in an email.

Usually, one of the reasons for publicizing such initiatives is the appetite of potential job applicants — and for what it’s worth, Blue Origin is advertising many jobs in its advanced development programs.

An artist's concept shows the Blue Alchemist system at work on the moon.  (Blue Origin illustration)

An artist’s concept shows the Blue Alchemist system at work on the moon. (Blue Origin illustration)

Blue Alchemist’s process involves melting lunar rheolith – that is, rock and soil from the moon’s surface – and placing it in a reactor at a temperature of around 1,600 degrees Celsius (2,900 degrees Fahrenheit). For Blue Origin’s agriculture experiments, simulated lunar dirt is used.

An electric current can be passed through the molten regolith to break down oxides and separate out elements such as iron, silicon and aluminium. This electrolytic method is similar to how water, or H2O, can be broken down by electrolysis to produce hydrogen and oxygen.

The oxygen from the Blue Origin reaction could be used for rocket propulsion or life support, and the iron, silicon and aluminum could be used to manufacture electrical components.

“Our silicon process is pure to more than 99.999%,” says Blue Origin. “This level of purity is required to make efficient solar cells. While typical methods of silicon purification on Earth use large amounts of toxic and explosive chemicals, our process uses only sunlight and the silicon from our reactor.”

Material filtered through the Blue Alchemist method can also be used to create the cover glass required for the solar cells, plus aluminum wire for transmission lines.

“Because our solar cell technology produces zero carbon emissions, no water, and no toxic ingredients or other chemicals, it has an exciting potential to directly benefit the Earth,” says Blue Origin.

Although Blue Origin’s blog post does not specify how the regolith would be melted, MRE researchers — including some now employed by the company — have discussed using solar concentrators or electric arc furnaces.

The idea of ​​manufacturing industrial components in extraterrestrial factories, and perhaps even sending the finished goods down to Earth, has been close to Bezos’ heart for a long time. Back in 2018, he told me he was looking forward to a “Great Inversion” in industrial production, fueled by space solar power.

“The Earth is not a very good place to do heavy industry,” Bezos said at the time. “It’s convenient for us right now, but in the not too distant future – I’m talking decades, maybe 100 years – it will be easier to do a lot of what we do now on Earth in space,. because we will have so much energy.”

We have updated this report with further comments from Blue Origin.

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