Blog | Feb 10, 2023

Blue Alchemist Technology Powers our Lunar Future

Blue Origin manufactured this working solar cell prototype from lunar regolith simulants.

Since 2021, Blue Origin has been making solar cells and transmission wire from regolith simulants.

To make long-term presence on the Moon viable, we need abundant electrical power. We can make power systems on the Moon directly from materials that exist everywhere on the surface, without special substances brought from Earth. We have pioneered the technology and demonstrated all the steps. Our approach, Blue Alchemist, can scale indefinitely, eliminating power as a constraint anywhere on the Moon.

We start by making regolith simulants that are chemically and mineralogically equivalent to lunar regolith, accounting for representative lunar variability in grain size and bulk chemistry. This ensures our starting material is as realistic as possible, and not just a mixture of lunar-relevant oxides. We have developed and qualified an efficient, scalable, and contactless process for melting and moving molten regolith that is robust to natural variations in regolith properties on the Moon.

Using regolith simulants, our reactor produces iron, silicon, and aluminum through molten regolith electrolysis, in which an electrical current separates those elements from the oxygen to which they are bound. Oxygen for propulsion and life support is a byproduct.

Our proprietary transport subsystem moves and separates molten material at temperatures above 1600 degrees Celsius in a controlled and power-efficient manner while withstanding the high-temperature, corrosive environment.

Molten regolith electrolysis extracts iron, then silicon, and finally aluminum by passing a current through the molten regolith. The rising oxygen bubbles in one of our reactors show metals and metalloids being separated from oxygen. Our reactor geometry, metal extraction approach, and materials selection will enable sustained lunar operations.

Our process purifies silicon to more than 99.999%. This level of purity is required to make efficient solar cells. While typical silicon purification methods on Earth use large amounts of toxic and explosive chemicals, our process uses just sunlight and the silicon from our reactor.

Our novel process fabricates solar cells, including cover glass, using only products from our reactor. These long-lived cells resist degradation caused by radiation on the Moon. Here we show silicon melting as well as the thin-layer deposition that makes solar cells.

For protection from the harsh lunar environment, solar cells need cover glass; without it, they would only last for days. Our technique uses only molten regolith electrolysis byproducts to make cover glass that enables lunar lifetimes exceeding a decade.

Because our technology manufactures solar cells with zero carbon emissions, no water, and no toxic ingredients or other chemicals, it has exciting potential to directly benefit the Earth.

Our diverse team is equipped to produce solar cells and transmission wire from lunar regolith simulant.

We assembled, in one laboratory, the people and facilities needed to transform regolith into solar cells and wires:

  • People: Our team encompasses all disciplines needed to solve this unprecedented technical challenge: geologists, geochemists, electrochemists, metallurgists, materials and photovoltaic scientists, fluid dynamicists, mechanical and electrical engineers, roboticists, and instrument, space flight, and systems engineers.

  • Facilities: Our laboratory is purpose-equipped for every step of the end-to-end process of transforming regolith into solar cells and aluminum wire, including quality and longevity testing.

Although our vision is technically ambitious, our technology is real now. Blue Origin’s goal of producing solar power using only lunar resources is aligned with NASA’s highest priority Moon-to-Mars infrastructure development objective.

Learning to live off the land – on the Moon and on Mars – will require extensive collaboration across the ISRU community. We are ready.

Once demonstrated and implemented on the Moon, Blue Alchemist will put unlimited solar power wherever we need it.