While in England Metalysis extracted precious metals from minerals (a process that has oxygen as a residue), in Holland, materials scientist Beth Lomax, from the University of Glascow, did the same in a laboratory at the European Space Research and Technology Center (ESTEC ), but using simulated samples of lunar regolith. Now, the European Space Agency (ESA) has decided to bring the two processes together into one by giving Metalysis a £ 250,000 ($ 330,000) contract to find out how to adapt its process to moon dust.
The company had already submitted a proof of concept, in which it used simulated regolith samples to extract and collect 96% of the oxygen from the original material. Metalysis uses the FFC Cambridge process, developed by material scientists George Chen, Derek Fray and Tom Farthing, between 1996 and 1997, at the University of Cambridge (the process name derives from the first letters of their surnames and the educational institution where it was invented).
Metalysis’ method consists of using electricity to extract titanium and tantalum, used in the aerospace industry and in the manufacture of smartphones, from ilmenite and columbite. After being purified, they are dipped in a solution of calcium chloride, receiving electrical discharges.
The result of the chemical reaction that follows is the extraction of valuable metals and the release of oxygen, which is allowed to escape. The contract with ESA aims to adjust this technology by Metalysis, so that the current process is applied to lunar rocks, capturing the resulting oxygen.
The success of the undertaking could be a giant step forward in the planning of bases on the lunar soil: if on the one hand, samples of the lunar surface confirm that the lunar regolith is 45% composed of oxygen, an astronaut aboard the International Space Station (ISS) today it consumes 2.5 kg of oxygen per day – not counting what is necessary for the production of fuel and food.