Last week, a blog post on the Blue Origin website made a claim that, if verified, could dramatically increase the prospects of establishing continued bases on the Moon. However, the curious lack of promotion the company – not generally known for avoiding publicity – gave the announcement suggests they may still have some misgivings about the technology.
The claim is that Blue Origin engineers figured out how to make functioning solar cells and electrical cables from the dust and debris found on the lunar surface, known as regolith. If you want to see humanity establish a permanent presence beyond low Earth orbit, or just get some fancy telescopes on the far side of the Moon, this falls into the “huge if true” category.
Lunar bases will need a lot of energy, including for heating and cooling, given the huge variation in temperatures the Moon experiences over the course of one of its month-long “days”. With no fossil fuels to mine or winds to exploit, this can only come from two sources: solar or nuclear.
While NASA’s plans currently revolve around nuclear power plants, some recent models suggest that a series of solar farms located near the lunar poles would be cheaper. The cables could connect the farms so that at all times at least one provided enough power.
However, the idea is still expensive, and most of the cost would be in transporting the solar panels and transmission lines, rather than manufacturing or installing them. If they could be made on site from locally sourced materials, the cost should plummet.
This is what Blue Origin claims they can do. Naturally, no one tested the idea on site, or even made the panels from the rocks brought back by the Apollo missions. Samples are too precious to be used in bulk like this.
Instead, Blue Origin created “regolith simulators” that matched the composition and grain size of samples collected by Apollo astronauts and worked with them. “We pioneered the technology and demonstrated every step. Our approach, Blue Alchemist, can scale indefinitely, eliminating power as a constraint anywhere on the Moon.
The process begins by heating regolith to 1800°C (3300°F) to melt it, then electrolyzing it to produce iron, silicon, and aluminum. The oxygen released in the process would certainly be useful on the lunar surface as well. The 99.99% pure silicon even meets the demanding standards of the photovoltaic industry, avoiding the expensive chemicals typically used on Earth.
To extract the elements needed to manufacture solar cells, Blue Origin first proposes to heat the lunar regolith until it melts. Image credit: Blue Origin
Silicon accounts for most of the weight required for solar panels, so once available on the lunar surface, the costs of bringing in the other components would be manageable. However, Blue Origin claims it can produce everything needed to manufacture solar panels on site, eliminating even the modest additions. This includes the glass layer to protect cells from damage. The same goes for the wires that could transmit the electricity back to the base.
The process is energy intensive, so a large initial set of solar panels would need to be flown in from Earth to prime the bomb, but once started, it would be self-sustaining.
A working prototype solar cell built using the method Blue Origin developed. Image credit: Blue Origin
“Because our technology makes solar cells with zero carbon emissions, without water and without toxic ingredients or other chemicals, it has exciting potential to directly benefit the Earth,” adds the blog.
The idea of using moon dust to benefit Earth in a very different way was floated last week. In the most recent case, it’s not the dust itself, but the lessons we’ve learned from it, that could help save Earth from climate change.
However, if the work was published in a journal or peer-reviewed, Blue Origin did not mention it. They have so far failed to promote the process or even mention it on their social media channels (although some team members have), so you may have to wait to see if any pieces are still missing.
(H/T: Ars Technica)