In a carbothermal process, gaseous methane is passed over molten regolith, which is heated past its melting point to a temperature in excess of 1,625 °C. At this temperature, materials in contact with the molten regolith (or regolith simulant) corrode and lose their structural properties. As a result, fabricating a crucible to hold the molten material and providing a method of contact heating have been problematic.
Alternative containment approaches use a large crucible and limit the heat zone of the material being processed, which is inefficient because of volume and mass constraints. Alternative heating approaches use non-contact heating, such as by laser or concentrated solar energy, which can be inefficient in transferring heat and thus require higher power heat sources to accomplish processing.
The innovation is a combination of materials, with a substrate material having high structural strength and stiffness and high-temperature capability, and a coating material with a high corrosion resistance and high-temperature capability. The material developed is a molybdenum substrate with an iridium coating. Creating the containment crucible or heater jacket using this material combination requires only that the molybdenum, which is easily processed by conventional methods such as milling, electric discharge machining, or forming and brazing, be fabricated into an appropriate shape, and that the iridium coating be applied to any surfaces that may come in contact with the corrosive molten material.
In one engineering application, the molybdenum was fashioned into a container for a heat pipe. Since only the end of the heat pipe is used to heat the regolith, the container has a narrowing end with a nipple in which the heat pipe is snugly fit, and the external area of this nipple, which contacts the regolith to transfer heat into it, is coated with iridium.
At the time of this reporting, no single material has been found that can perform the functions of this combination of materials, and other combinations of materials have not proven to be survivable to the corrosiveness of this environment.
High-temperature processing of materials with similar constituencies as lunar regolith is fairly common. The carbothermal process is commonly used to make metallurgical-grade silicon for the semiconductor and solar-cell industries.
This work was done by Theodore G. Stern and Eric McNaul of DR Technologies for Glenn Research Center.
Inquiries concerning rights for the commercial use of this invention should be addressed to NASA Glenn Research Center, Innovative Partnerships Office, Attn: Steve Fedor, Mail Stop 4–8, 21000 Brookpark Road, Cleveland, Ohio 44135. Refer to LEW-18459-1.