Building solar cells on the Moon

Building solar cells on the Moon

Technology News |
By Nick Flaherty

Researchers at rocket company Blue Origin in the US has made solar cells and transmission wires from the same materials that are found on the Moon.

The approach, called Blue Alchemist, has been demonstrated with materials that simulate the regolith, or Moon dust, and can can scale indefinitely, eliminating power as a constraint anywhere on the Moon.

The company, owned by Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, brought together geologists, geochemists, electrochemists, metallurgists, materials and photovoltaic scientists, fluid dynamicists, mechanical and electrical engineers, roboticists, and instrument, space flight, and systems engineers in a single lab.

The process starts with regolith simulants that are chemically and mineralogically equivalent to lunar regolith, accounting for representative lunar variability in grain size and bulk chemistry. This ensures the starting material is as realistic as possible, and not just a mixture of lunar-relevant oxides.

An efficient, scalable, and contactless process for melting and moving molten regolith has been qualified that is robust to the natural variations in the materials on the Moon.

Using regolith simulants, the reactor produces iron, silicon, and aluminum through electrolysis, in which an electrical current separates those elements from the oxygen to which they are bound. Oxygen for propulsion and life support is a byproduct.

A proprietary material transport subsystem moves and separates molten material at temperatures above 1600 degrees Celsius in a controlled and power-efficient manner while withstanding the high-temperature, corrosive environment.

The electrolysis then extracts iron, then silicon, and finally aluminium by passing a current through the molten regolith. The reactor geometry, metal extraction approach, and materials selection will enable sustained lunar operations and purifies silicon to more than 99.999% to make efficient solar cells. While typical silicon purification methods on Earth use large amounts of toxic and explosive chemicals, this process uses just sunlight and the silicon from the reactor.

A novel process fabricates solar cells, including cover glass, using only products from the reactor. The cells also resist degradation caused by radiation on the Moon.

For protection from the harsh lunar environment, solar cells need cover glass; without it, they would only last for days. The technique uses only molten regolith electrolysis byproducts to make cover glass that enables lunar lifetimes exceeding a decade.

The aim of having a reactor on the Moon is technically ambitious, but the technology is real now say the researchers. The company has also been awarded a project to develop technology for a habitat on Mars.

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