Lunar soil collected from China’s Chang’e-5 moon mission display during an exhibition at the National Museum of China in Beijing on March 4, 2021.
By Margaret Davis
A team of researchers from the University of Science and Technology of China, Nanjing University, and China Academy of Space Technology said that they managed to convert actual lunar soil samples or regolith from the Chang’e mission into a source of rocket fuel and oxygen.
Futurism reports that the team found that the regolith samples can act as a catalyst to convert carbon dioxide and water from the bodies of astronauts and the environment into methane and oxygen. The discovery is a potential game-changer for future space exploration, ensuring the success of the mission by providing in-situ resources to fuel up their spacecraft for the return journey.
Groundbreaking Conversion of Lunar Soil Sample to Methane and Oxygen
The research is detailed in a paper. titled “In Situ Resource Utilization of Lunar Soil for Highly Efficient Extraterrestrial Fuel and Oxygen Supply,” which is published in the National Science Review.
Lead author Yujie Xiong said about their work that in situ resource utilization of regolith to achieve the production of rocket fuel and oxygen in space is important for crewed lunar missions. Since there are limited human resources at extraterrestrial sites, the team proposed to use the robotic system to perform the whole electrocatalytic carbon dioxide conversion system setup.
The groundbreaking conversion of a lunar soil sample to methane and oxygen gives humans a better shot at carrying out long-term explorations of the lunar surface in the future.
Researchers explain that their study builds on previous research earlier this year, which suggests that lunar soil can generate oxygen and fuel and can be completed even in the absence of astronauts.
They used regolith brought to Earth by the Chang’e 5 mission, which landed in Mongolia in December 2020. it was the first lunar soil sample to return to Earth since 1976.
Researchers found that the lunar soil sample acted as a catalyst that enabled the electrocatalytic conversion of carbon dioxide into methane and oxygen with no significant difference between manned and unmanned systems.
Researchers concluded that this suggests the high possibility of imitating the proposed system in extraterrestrial sites and proves it is possible to optimize catalyst recipes on the Moon.
Liquifying Carbon Dioxide is Challenging
According to Phys.org, the lunar soil was loaded with copper (Cu) species and was used for electrocatalytic carbon dioxide conversion to produce methane. The selected component in the lunar sample could reach a methane production rate of 0.8 mL/min and an oxygen production rate of 2.3 mL/min at 600 mA/cm2.
Yujie Xiong explains that the unmanned operation of the carbon dioxide conversion is considered to be one of the bottlenecks to realizing the application of the technology because of its complex system setup.
That is why it is highly desirable to operate such electrocatalytic carbon dioxide conversion using a robotic system to simplify it and meet the operational requirements.
But there is still one big hurdle to solve. Liquiying carbon dioxide is challenging given the frosty atmosphere of the Moon as condensing the gas would need a significant amount of heat, per New Scientist’s report earlier this year.
Nonetheless, the prospect of a system chugging away lunar soil and pumping out oxygen and rocket fuel for future space missions is a tantalizing idea. For now, more studies are still needed.