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Ever since man landed on the moon, we have been dreaming of colonising it.
We have the technology to get there, the only thing that is standing in our way is the cost
of sending materials to the moon.
While companies like Space X and Blue Origin are aiming to reduce the cost of rocket launches.
The real challenge will be using the materials available to us on the moon.
Luckily for us the moon has no shortage of raw materials for us to exploit, but new technologies
need to be developed in order to extract them efficiently.
This would give the lunar colony the materials necessary to build and expand, but more importantly
stimulate a lunar economy where it can sell the materials it gathers, like rocket fuel
and rare metals.
So what materials are available in the lunar soil?
The elements available differ with regions on the moon.
Water will be a high priority resource, and in 2009, India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar satellite
detected ice at the moon's poles.
The poles are likely the best candidate for our first moon colonists, but not just for
the water.
There are regions on the poles that receive almost continuous sunlight like the ridges
of the Shackleton crater.
Allowing these early colonists to bring solar panels with them and have a continuous supply
of energy.
And energy will be in high demand, as all extraction techniques will need to be electrified.
The most efficient method of extraction of the lunar ice, will be to simply collect the
lunar soil containing the ice and place it into a microwave oven, where it will evaporate
at very low temperatures thanks to the vacuum on the moon.
The vapour will then be condensed and collected.[1]
Our next commodity that will be high in demand is oxygen, and surprisingly oxygen is one
of the most abundant elements on the moon [2], but it is trapped in the form of oxides.
Like Iron Oxide, aluminium oxide, titanium oxide, and silicon oxide.
These are all valuable materials, and if we can create oxygen as a by product of their
extraction that just makes it all the more worthwhile.
Iron will be a vital material for any lunar colony.
Here on earth it so vital for modern society that its production and utilisation is a clear
indicator of economic growth.
It reinforces our buildings through rebar.
it holds the weight of our electrical grid on its shoulders and it bridges our oceans
and rivers, AND it is heavy making it far too expensive to transport to the moon
To produce Iron with current methods we first need to mine limestone, coal and the iron
ore itself.
The coal is refined into coke, by baking off impurities like tar and water in a coke oven,
which itself is a energy intensive process.
This coke is then use as a fuel source in a blast furnace to reduce our iron ore by
producing carbon monoxide, which reacts with the iron oxide ore to form iron and carbon
dioxide, while the limestone breaks down to carbon dioxide and calcium oxide, which reacts
with impurities in the ore.
The pig iron produced then needs further refinement in an oxygen furnace to produce steel.
This process will need to be streamlined for any lunar colony, as shipping heavy fossil
fuels to the moon, purely to extract iron from its ore is simply not an option.
To add some incentive to develop this technology, this complete process contributes 1.7 gigatonnes
of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere annually.
Five percent of total global emissions.
[3]
Developing a fully electrified version will allow us to manufacture emissions free steel.
NASA offered a quarter-million dollar prize to the first research team that could develop
a reasonable method to process these resources on the moon while producing oxygen as a bi-product.
Donald Sadoway [4], a Professor of Materials Chemistry at MIT, proposed using an electrolytic
cell.
This cell would use an electric current to separate the metals and release the oxygen
from its bonds.
[5]
Aluminium production already uses electrolysis to refine aluminium oxide.
Aluminium oxide has a very high melting point of 2072 degrees celsius, and so to reduce
the energy required the aluminium oxide is instead dissolved in molten cryolite, which
has a lower melting point of 1012 degrees celcius and thus this method reduces energy
requirements substantially.
This molten mixture is then placed in a steel case, which is lined with a graphite cathode,
the anodes are also made out of graphite.
When an electric current flows aluminium ions form at the cathode where they gain electrons
and sink to the bottom to form molten aluminium that can be tapped off.
Meanwhile the oxygen ions accumulate at the graphite anodes where they react with the
carbon in the graphite to form carbon dioxide.
This will be the general process for metal extraction on the moon, but
graphite is obviously off the table as a material for our anode and cathode, if we want to produce
oxygen as it produces carbon dioxide and is consumed in the process.
Carbon is in short supply on the moon though, so this may be a clever way of producing carbon
dioxide on the moon for plant growth.
In a paper published in 2012, Sadoway and his research partner Antoine Allanore conclude
that a chromium alloy anode is the best choice, as a protective and conductive layer of chromium
and aluminium oxides form on its surface.
This allows it to trade electrons with the negatively charged oxygen ions without being
heavily corroded in the process and oxygen is formed instead of carbon dioxide [6].
This will be an incredibly energy intensive process, and it’s one of the main stumbling
blocks currently stopping it from being used here on earth for iron refinement.
It’s also one of the main reasons aluminium is more expensive than iron.
Generating electricity on the moon will initially rely on lightweight solar panels shipped to
the moon, but for a moon economy to grow it will need to be capable of expanding its own
electrical grid.
Aluminium is readily available on the moon, and it can be used for wiring like it is here
on earth for high voltage power lines.
The primary material used in solar panels is silicon, which abundant on the moon, and
applications go far beyond just solar panels.
It can be used to make glass and it’s used to alloy with aluminium and iron.
While solar panels primary material is silicon, the silicon we find in solar powers needs
to be incredibly pure, and it’s production also requires a carbon supply in the form
of coke or charcoal.
I couldn’t find any technologies being developed to free its production from these feedstocks,
which are not available on the moon, and ultimately I think sending lightweight solar panels from
Earth to the Moon will probably be more economical until new technologies are developed.
The moon has a rich supply of helium 3 however, thanks solar winds, and if we manage to develop
nuclear fusion technologies.
Generating power on the moon will become vastly easier, and allow the moon to develop a healthy
economy harvesting this gas and sending it back to earth.
Ultimately a self sustaining moon colony will depend completely on its ability to harvest
and make use of the materials available to it, and thankfully the technologies being
developed for that purpose have uses here right on earth for freeing us from dependency
on fossil fuels.
As always striving to do what is difficult, challenges humans to develop and grow as a
species.
This is why the space program is important.
Challenging ourselves is a core part of being human, it allows us to discover things about
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