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Oxygen Production from Lunar Regolith using Ionic LiquidsThe objective of this work and future follow-on work is to develop a safe, efficient, and recyclable method for oxygen and/or metals extraction from lunar regolith, in support of establishing a manned lunar outpost. The approach is to solubilize the oxides that comprise lunar regolith in media consisting of ionic liquids (ILs) and/or their mixtures at temperatures at or below 300 C. Once in solution, electrolysis can either be performed in-situ to generate oxygen at the anode and hydrogen and/or metals (silicon, iron, aluminum, titanium, etc.) at the cathode. Alternatively, the water that is generated during the solubilization process can be distilled out and condensed into a separate IL and then electrolysized to produce hydrogen and oxygen. In the case of lunar regolith, this method could theoretically produce 44g oxygen per 100g of regolith. The oxygen can be used for human life support and/or as an oxidizer for rocket fuels, and the metals can be used as raw materials for construction and/or device fabrication. Moreover, the hydrogen produced can be used to re-generate the acidic medium, which can then be used to process additional regolith, thereby making the materials recyclable and limiting upmass requirements. An important advantage of IL acid systems is that they are much "greener" and safer than conventional materials used for regolith processing such as sulfuric or hydrochloric acids. They have very low vapor pressures, which means that they contain virtually no toxic and/or flammable volatile content, they are relatively non-corrosive, and they can exhibit good stability in harsh environments (extreme temperatures, hard vacuum, etc.). Furthermore, regolith processing can be achieved at lower temperatures than other processes such as molten oxide electrolysis or hydrogen reduction, thereby reducing initial power requirements. Six ILs have been synthesized and tested for their capability to dissolve lunar simulant, and for electrochemical and thermal stability. The results showed that ILs can be very efficient electrolytes; in particular IL/phosphoric-acid mixtures appear extremely promising for solubilizing lunar simulant. Results from preliminary experiments for distillation of water produced from the oxygen within the metal oxides of the simulant and the hydrogen from the acid indicates that over 75% of the oxygen from the simulant can be harvested as water at a temperature of 150 C. A method for collection of oxygen from electrolysis of the water derived from solubilizing simulant was developed by using a liquid nitrogen trap to liquefy and collect the oxygen. Although precise quantification of the liquid oxygen trapped is difficult to obtain, the amount of hydrogen and oxygen collected from electrolysis of water in this system was greater than 98%. This set-up also included a portable mass spectrometer for the identification of gases released from electrolysis cells. Regeneration of ILs through re-protonation was also demonstrated. Four sequential re-generations of an IL following solubilization of simulant showed no significant differences in amounts of simulant dissolved. Follow-on work for this project should include more studies of IL/phosphoric acid systems. Also, much more work is necessary for defining methods for electrolysis and purification of metals from regolith solubilized in ILs, and for developing a system to use the produced hydrogen to regenerate the spent IL. Finally, design and development of flight breadboard and prototype hardware is required.
Document ID
Document Type
Paley, Mark Steven (AZ Technology, Inc. Huntsville, AL, United States)
Karr, Laurel J. (NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Huntsville, AL, United States)
Curreri, Peter (NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Huntsville, AL, United States)
Date Acquired
August 24, 2013
Publication Date
February 24, 2009
Subject Category
Man/System Technology and Life Support
Report/Patent Number
Meeting Information
Space, Propulsion and Energy Sciences International Forum(Huntsville, AL)
Distribution Limits
Public Use Permitted.

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