Why space companies want to make solar cells from lunar dirt

We rarely ask, with regard to humans returning to the moon, how they will develop its resources. Two companies are creating the technology to do just that.

Blue Origin, the commercial space company founded by Amazon’s executive chairman and billionaire Jeff Bezos, is developing a technology that would make living on the moon easier and, perhaps in the fullness of time, make a moon base a profitable concern.

Recently, Blue Origin processed some simulated lunar soil that could be used to create solar panels and transmission lines as well as a glass cover to protect the panels from the harsh conditions of the lunar surface. The process uses molten regolith electrolysis by passing an electric current through regolith that had been heated to 1,600 degrees Celsius (2912 degrees Fahrenheit). Iron, aluminum and silicon separate out with oxygen as a useful byproduct. The silicon is 99.99 percent pure, a requirement for making solar panels.

According to the company, solar panel production on Earth involves “large amounts of toxic and explosive chemicals, our process uses just sunlight and the silicon from our reactor.” The implications for the industrial development of space are almost beyond evaluation.

Blue Origin intends to market its process to NASA as a way to provide a future lunar base with power, as well as building materials and oxygen. The process could also be used to create utility-scale solar power stations in geosynchronous orbit that can provide energy to Earth by beaming it to receiving stations.

A Houston-based company called Lunar Resources is also delving into technology to extract useful materials from lunar soil. The company is working on additive manufacturing technology to build things from material extracted from lunar soil, including solar panels. The company has received a NASA grant to study a pipeline to transport oxygen on the moon. The pipeline would be built of lunar materials.

The idea of space-based solar power stations is not new. Back in the 1970s, Princeton Physics Professor  Gerard K. O’Neill pondered if a way existed to make space exploration a profitable enterprise. The first energy crisis inspired him to devise the idea of building space-based solar power collectors, using materials mined from the moon, which would beam power to receiving stations on Earth. The plan was to provide Earth with abundant clean energy while enabling the building of free-flying space colonies to build the new energy infrastructure.

It should be noted that Bezos, while a student at Princeton, met O’Neill and was heavily influenced by his ideas. Indeed, Bezos founded Blue Origin, in part, as a way to fulfill the O’Neill vision. If Bezos gets his way, not only energy production but all heavy industry could be moved off-world, leaving Earth zoned for “light” industry and residential communities. Bezos’s lunar power vision rivals that of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s idea of Mars colonies, although the two might be considered complementary.

University of Houston at Clear Lake Professor David Criswell developed a variant of O’Neill’s idea. Instead of building solar panels out of lunar materials and moving them to geosynchronous orbit, Criswell proposed deploying the panels on the lunar surface and beaming the power directly from the moon to the Earth.

The purpose of the Apollo race to the moon was science and the soft political power derived from being first to land men on the lunar surface. The current NASA-led Artemis program is being undertaken for those two reasons as well as the wealth to be gained by accessing the moon’s mineral and energy resources and, in time, the rest of the solar system.

In-situ resource utilization (ISRU) will be the difference between a few short-term expeditions to the moon and a sustainable human community on the moon. The more that can be mined and refined on the moon, the less that must be brought there at great expense from Earth.

Beyond supporting a lunar base, mining the moon for its resources will be the basis of a space-based industrial revolution. Space-based solar power could be one product of this revolution. Lunar resources could also provide the raw materials for industrial facilities that use micro-gravity and hard vacuum to produce products that cannot be manufactured on Earth.

Commercial development of space has been a decades-long dream. Now, companies like Blue Origin and Lunar Resources are starting to make that dream a reality.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.