Blue Origin touts technology to turn moon dirt into solar cells

Coin-sized solar cells like these could be made from lunar material, according to Blue Origin. (Blue origin photo)

Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin doesn’t just work on rockets and space stations: the Kent, Washington-based company is also developing technology that could one day turn the moon’s soil into materials for power-generating solar cells and transmission cables.

This branch of Blue Origin’s advanced development programs is given the spotlight in a blog post published on the company’s website. The underlying approach — called electrolysis of molten regolith, or MRE — has been the subject of research for decades, but Blue Origin says it’s refined the technique over the past two years.

“We can fabricate power systems on the moon directly from materials found all over the surface, without special substances brought in from Earth,” the company says. “We pioneered the technology and demonstrated every step. Our approach, Blue Alchemist, can scale indefinitely and eliminate Force 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 turn raw materials from the Moon or Mars into the stuff needed to support future settlements — stuff ranging from water and oxygen to iron and silicon. The approach is known as In-situ Resource Utilization, or ISRU.

Some of that funding went to MRE experiments, but it’s not clear if NASA has anything specific in mind for Blue Alchemist. Typically, one of the reasons for posting such initiatives is to whet the appetite of potential job applicants – and for what it’s worth, Blue Origin advertises dozens of positions in its advanced development programs. We’ve contacted Blue Origin for details and will update this report with anything we get back.

An artist’s conception shows the Blue Alchemist System at work on the moon. (Blue original image)

The Blue Alchemist process involves melting down lunar regolith – rock and soil from the lunar surface – and placing it in a reactor at a temperature of about 1,600 degrees Celsius (2,900 degrees Fahrenheit). Simulated lunar debris is used for Blue Origin’s terrestrial experiments.

Electric current can be passed through the molten regolith to break up oxides and separate elements such as iron, silicon, and aluminum. This electrolytic method is similar to water or H2O, can be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis.

The oxygen resulting from Blue Origin’s reaction could be used for rocket propulsion or life support, while iron, silicon, and aluminum could be used to make electrical components.

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

The material, refined using the Blue Alchemist method, can also be used to make the cover glass needed for solar cells, as well as aluminum wire for transmission lines.

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

Although Blue Origin’s blog article does not specify how the regolith would be melted down, 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 off-Earth factories, and perhaps even shipping the finished goods to Earth, has long been Bezos’ heart. Back in 2018, he told me he was looking forward to a “major reversal” in industrial production powered by space solar energy.

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

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