Airbus Defence and Space, a subsidiary of the Europe-based global Airbus group, has announced that an international team under its leadership has achieved an important technological breakthrough. They have successfully demonstrated a process invented by Airbus by producing oxygen and metals from simulated lunar regolith (or dust). The process is named Roxy, an acronym for Regolith to OXYgen and metals conversion).
“This breakthrough is a massive leap forward – taking us one step closer to the holy grail of being able to sustain long term living on the Moon,” enthused Airbus Space Systems head Jean-Marc Nasr. “Roxy is proof positive that collaboration between industry and world leading scientists can bring huge tangible benefits that will continue to push the boundaries of future exploration.”
The team was composed of researchers at Airbus Defence and Space’s Friedrichshafen facility in Germany, the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials IFAM in Dresden, Germany, Boston University in the US, and Abengoa Innovación in Seville, Spain. The process has been under development for two years and the breakthrough was achieved in September at Fraunhofer IFAM when, during laboratory tests, oxygen was extracted from the simulated regolith.
Although this is only a first step, and a small one, it has clarified the way to develop an operational system. As oxygen is essential to all human activities in space, the ability to produce oxygen from regolith promises to revolutionise space exploration. Almost no details of the Roxy system have been revealed, except that it is a reactor fitted with an inert anode (and so, by implication, also with a cathode). There is no indication of what materials the reactor and anode are made of.
“Roxy enables the design of a small, simple, compact and cost-efficient regolith to oxygen and metals conversion facility, and is therefore ideally suited to support a wide range of future exploration missions,” affirmed Airbus Defence and Space. “Not requiring additional materials or consumables from Earth – except the Roxy reactor itself – this could be the heart of an integrated value chain using additive layer manufacturing to produce a wide range of products ‘Made on the Moon’. These could include metals, alloys and oxygen. Combined with lunar ice, it would even be possible to produce rocket fuel from Roxy metal powder.”
The technology also has terrestrial applications. It could allow the production of metals while drastically reducing the levels of greenhouse-gas emissions that result from current metal production technologies, which have serious environmental impacts. Steelmaking alone is responsible for about 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions. And many metal-producing processes release important amounts of perfluorocarbons, which are harmful to the environment. The Roxy process is effectively emission-free, and so would greatly reduce the environmental impacts of metals production. “[A]nother example of how space technologies can improve life on Earth,” highlighted the company.