Jeff Bezos’ Space company Blue Origin doesn’t just work on rockets and space stations: the Kent, Wash.-based company is also developing technology that could one day turn the moon’s soil into materials for power-generating solar cells and transmission cables.
This branch of Blue Origin’s advanced development programs is featured in a blog post published on company website. The underlying approach – called molten regolith electrolysis, or MRE – has been the subject of research for decadesbut Blue Origin says it has refined the technique over the past two years.
“We can make electrical systems on the Moon directly from materials that exist everywhere on the surface, without special substances brought in from Earth,” the company explains. “We pioneered the technology and demonstrated all the steps. Our approach, Blue Alchemist, can scale indefinitely, eliminating power as a constraint anywhere on the moon.
Over the past few years, Blue Origin and its subsidiary Honeybee Robotics have received funding from NASA for technologies that could transform raw materials from the moon or Mars into what will be needed to support future colonies – things ranging from water and oxygen to iron and silicon. The approach is known as In Situ Resource Utilization, or ISRU.
Part of this funding went to MRE experiments, but it’s unclear if NASA has anything specific in mind for Blue Alchemist. Typically, one of the reasons for publicizing such initiatives would be to whet the appetite of potential job candidates – and for what it’s worth, Blue Origin is advertising dozens of positions in its advanced development programs. We’ve reached out to Blue Origin for more details and will update this report with anything we hear.
The Blue Alchemist process involves melting lunar regolith – that is, rock and soil from the moon’s surface – and placing it in a reactor at a temperature of around 1,600 degrees Celsius (2 900 degrees Fahrenheit). For Blue Origin’s terrestrial experiments, simulated moon dust is used.
An electric current can be passed through the molten regolith to break down oxides and separate elements such as iron, silicon, and aluminum. This electrolytic method is similar to how water, or H2Oh, maybe decomposed by electrolysis produce hydrogen and oxygen.
Oxygen from the Blue Origin reaction could be used for rocket propulsion or life support, while iron, silicon and aluminum could be used to make electrical components.
“Our process has purified the silicon to over 99.999%,” says Blue Origin. “This level of purity is needed to make efficient solar cells. While typical methods of purifying silicon on Earth use large amounts of toxic and explosive chemicals, our process uses only sunlight and silicon from our reactor.
Material refined by the Blue Alchemist method can also be used to create the cover glass required for solar cells, more aluminum wire for transmission lines.
“Because our technology makes solar cells zero carbon emissions, zero water, and zero toxic ingredients or other chemicals, it has exciting potential to directly benefit the Earth,” Blue Origin says.
Although Blue Origin’s blog post does not specify how the regolith would be melted, MRE researchers – including some who are now employed by the company – have discussed the use solar concentrators or electric arc furnaces.
The idea of manufacturing industrial components in off-Earth factories, and perhaps even sending the finished products to Earth, has long been dear to Bezos. In 2018 he told me that he looked forward to a “Great Reversal” of industrial productionpowered by space solar energy.
“Earth is not a very good place to do heavy industry,” Bezos said at the time. “It’s convenient for us right now, but in the not too distant future – I’m talking decades, maybe 100 years – it will start to get easier to do a lot of the things that we do on Earth right now in the space, because we will have so much energy.