The innovation consists of a thermodynamic system for extracting in situ oxygen vapor from lunar regolith using a solar photovoltaic power source in a reactor, a method for thermally insulating the reactor, a method for protecting the reactor internal components from oxidation by the extracted oxygen, a method for removing unwanted chemical species produced in the reactor from the oxygen vapor, a method for passively storing the oxygen, and a method for releasing highpurity oxygen from storage for lunar use.
Lunar oxygen exists in various types of minerals, mostly silicates. The energy required to extract the oxygen from the minerals is 30 to 60 MJ/kg O. Using simple heating, the extraction rate depends on temperature. The minimum temperature is approximately 2,500 K, which is at the upper end of available oven temperatures. The oxygen is released from storage in a purified state, as needed, especially if for human consumption.
This method extracts oxygen from regolith by treating the problem as a closed batch cycle system. The innovation works equally well in Earth or Lunar gravity fields, at low partial pressure of oxygen, and makes use of in situ regolith for system insulation.
The innovation extracts oxygen from lunar regolith using a method similar to vacuum pyrolysis, but with hydrogen cover gas added stoichiometrically to react with the oxygen as it is produced by radiatively heating regolith to 2,500 K. The hydrogen flows over and through the heating element (HE), protecting it from released oxygen. The H2–O2 heat of reaction is regeneratively recovered to assist the heating process. Lunar regolith is loaded into a large-diameter, low-height “pancake” reactor powered by photovoltaic cells. The reactor lid contains a 2,500 K HE that radiates downward onto the regolith to heat it and extract oxygen, and is shielded above by a multi-layer tungsten radiation shield. Hydrogen cover gas percolates through the perforated tungsten shielding and HE, preventing oxidation of the shielding and HE, and reacting with the oxygen to form water vapor. The water vapor is filtered through solid regolith to remove unwanted extraction byproducts, and then condensed to a liquid state and stored at 300 to 325 K. Conversion to usable oxygen is achieved by pumping liquid water into a high-pressure electrolyzer, storing the gaseous oxygen at high pressure for use, and diverting the hydrogen back to the reactor or to storage.
The results from this design effort show that this oxygen-generating concept can be developed in an efficient system with low specific mass. Advantages include use of regolith as an oxygen source, filter, and thermal insulator. The system can be tested in Earth gravity and can be expected to operate similarly in lunar gravity. The system is scalable, either by increasing the power level and output of a standard module, or by employing multiple modules.