Near the end of a disastrous 2020, news from an unexpected quarter went some way to raise the spirits a little. UK powder producer Metalysis, bouncing back after having gone into administration in 2019, reported that it and the European Space Agency (ESA) had joined forces to research making metal powders in space.

According to the company, the project (entitled ‘The Metalysis FFC Process for Extra-Terrestrial Oxygen Production from In-Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU)’) will investigate using the company’s Fray-Farthing-Chen (FFC) Cambridge process to obtain powder and oxygen from ‘regolith-like materials in a lunar context’ – i.e., surface moon dust and moon rock. (Fig. 1.) According to the ESA, samples returned from the lunar surface show that lunar regolith is made up of 40–45% oxygen by weight, its single most abundant element. An initial proof of concept study of Metalysis’ process resulted in a material with 96% of the total oxygen successfully extracted, for potential use in propellants and life support consumables, and a mixed metal alloy product that can, in turn, be manufactured in place. (Fig. 2.)

Interestingly in this case, the oxygen extracted is as important as the powder, since oxygen is essential for sustainable long duration activities in space, and its in situ production could significantly reduce the payload mass that would be needed to be launched from earth, Metalysis said.

‘This oxygen is an extremely valuable resource, but it is chemically bound in the material as oxides in the form of minerals or glass, and is therefore unavailable for immediate use,’ said researcher Beth Lomax of the University of Glasgow, who is researching the FFC process. ‘This research provides a proof-of-concept that we can extract and utilize all the oxygen from lunar regolith, leaving a potentially useful metallic by-product.’

This article appeared in the March–April 2021 issue of Metal Powder Report. Log in to your free to access the article.

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