The upper layer of the moon can provide oxygen to 8 billion people for 100,000 years

In addition to advances in space exploration, we are seeing major investments in technology that would allow effective use space resources… And one of the directions of this research is the search the best way to produce oxygen on the moon.

In October, the Australian Space Agency signed an agreement with NASA on sending an Australian-made lunar rover to the moon as part of the Artemis program, in order to collect lunar rocks that could ultimately provide the moon with oxygen suitable for humans.

Although the Moon has an atmosphere, it is very rarefied and consists mainly of hydrogen, neon and argon. It is not a gas mixture that can support oxygen-dependent mammals such as humans.

Despite this, there is indeed a lot of oxygen on the moon. Not in gaseous form. Instead, it is trapped in regolith, a layer of rocks and dust that covers the moon’s surface. But if we could extract oxygen from the regolith, would it be enough to support human life on the Moon?

Oxygen volume

Oxygen can be found in many minerals in the earth. And most of the moon’s minerals can be found on Earth as well (although there are slightly more materials from meteorites).

Minerals such as silica (silicon dioxide), aluminum, iron and magnesium oxides dominate the composition of the lunar soil. All of these minerals include oxygen, but not in a form suitable for our lungs.

On the Moon, these minerals are present in the form of hard rocks, dust, gravel and stones that cover the surface. This material was formed by falling meteorites over countless millennia.

Some people call the lunar soil soil, but as a soil scientist I hesitate to use that term. Soil, as we know, is a rather remarkable material that is found only on earth. It is the result of the life of a huge number of organisms in the original material – regolith, obtained from solid rocks – over millions of years.

The result of this activity is the forms of minerals that were not present in the original material. The earth’s soil has a remarkable list of physical, chemical and biological characteristics. At the same time, the lunar surface materials are regolith in their original form.

One substance at the entrance, two at the exit

Lunar regolith consists of about on 45% from oxygen… But this oxygen is tightly bound to the substances listed above. In order to break these strong bonds, you need to apply energy.

You probably understand what this is about if you know about electrolysis. On Earth, this process is mainly used in industry, for example, in the production of aluminum. Electric current is passed through molten alumina to separate oxygen from the aluminum.

In this case, oxygen is a by-product. On the Moon, oxygen would be the main product, and recovered aluminum (or other metal) would be a potentially useful by-product.

It’s a fairly simple process, but there is a catch: it requires a lot of energy. To continuously produce oxygen in this way, it will be necessary to support the process with solar energy or other energy available on the moon.

Australia has several aluminum oxide processing plants, including the Gladstone plant.  Aluminum is produced in two stages.  Before pure aluminum can be separated by electrolysis, alumina refineries must first purify natural bauxite ore.
Australia has several aluminum oxide processing plants, including the Gladstone plant. Aluminum is produced in two stages. Before pure aluminum can be isolated by electrolysis, alumina refineries must first purify natural bauxite ore.

Serious industrial equipment is needed to extract oxygen from the lunar regolith. The first step is to convert the solid metal oxide to a liquid form, either by heating or by heating in combination with solvents and electrolytes. Exists technologiesto do this on Earth, but bringing such equipment to the Moon (and generating enough energy) is not an easy task.

Earlier this year, Belgian startup Space Applications Services announced the construction of three experimental reactors to improve the process of producing oxygen through electrolysis. In 2025, they plan to send this technology to the moon as part of ISRU programs European Space Agency.

How much oxygen is there on the moon?

Anyway, if these plans are implemented, how much oxygen can you get? Quite a lot, it turns out.

If we ignore the oxygen in deeper rocks and just look at the surface regolith, a rough estimate can be made.

Each cubic meter of lunar regolith contains an average of 1.4 tons of minerals, including 630 kilograms of oxygen. According to NASA, a person needs 800 gram oxygen for survival. So, 630 kilograms of oxygen is enough for 1 person for about 2 years.

Now let us assume that the average depth of the regolith about 10 meters and we can extract all the oxygen from it. It turns out that the upper 10 meters of the lunar soil can provide oxygen to 8 billion people for almost 100 thousand years.

This figure will also depend on how efficiently you can extract and use oxygen. Nonetheless, the numbers are astounding.

With all this, we are really doing pretty well here on Earth. And we must do everything we can to protect the blue planet – and its soil in particular – that continues to support all earthly life without our efforts.

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