NASA Selects ISRU Projects for SBIR Awards

NASA LOGONASA has selected eight research projects focused on in-situ resource utilization for funding under its Small Business Innovation Research Phase I program.

The selected projects include:

  • Extraterrestrial Metals Processing — Pioneer Astronautics
  • Robotic ISRU Construction of Planetary Landing and Launch Pad — Honeybee Robotics
  • Extruded Clay-Based Regoliths for Construction on Mars, Phobos and NEAs — Deep Space Industries
  • In-Situ Generation of Polymer Concrete Construction Materials — Luna Innovations
  • ISP3: In-Situ Printing Plastic Production System for Space Additive Manufacturing — Altius Space Machines
  • Compact In-Situ Polyethylene Production from Carbon Dioxide — Opus 12
  • Micro-Channel Reactor for Processing Carbon Dioxide to Ethylene — Reactive Innovations
  • OpenSWIFT-SDR for STRS Polyethylene Production from In-Situ Resources in Microchannel Reactors — TDA Research

Full descriptions of the projects are below.

Extraterrestrial Metals Processing
Subtopic: In situ Resource Utilization – Production of Feedstock for Manufacturing and Construction

Small Business Concern
Pioneer Astronautics
Lakewood, CO

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Mark Berggren

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 4

Technical Abstract

The Extraterrestrial Metals Processing (EMP) system produces ferrosilicon, silicon monoxide, a glassy mixed oxide slag, and smaller amounts of alkali earth compounds, phosphorus, sulfur, and halogens from Mars, Moon, and asteroid regolith by carbothermal reduction. These materials, in some cases after further processing with other in-situ resources, are used for production of high-purity iron and magnesium metals (for structural applications), high purity silicon (for photovoltaics and semiconductors), high purity silica (for clear glass), refractory ceramics (for insulation, thermal processing consumables, and construction materials), and fertilizer (from phosphorus recovered from carbothermal reduction exhaust gases). Carbothermal reduction also co-produces oxygen at yields on the order of 20 percent of regolith feed mass when integrating downstream processes to recover and recycle carbon. Many of the EMP products can be prepared in a fashion suitable for casting or additive manufacture methods and have broad application in support of advanced human space exploration. The EMP methods are based on minimal reliance on Earth-based consumables; nearly all of the gases and reagents required for processing can be manufactured from Mars in-situ resources or can be recovered and recycled for applications using Moon or asteroid resources.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The primary application of EMP is for production of iron, silicon, and magnesium metals as well as refractory metal oxides and byproducts including phosphors and oxygen from Mars, Moon, or asteroid in-situ resources for manufacturing in support of advanced human space exploration. The EMP product suite includes many useful materials that will expand exploration and colonization capabilities while substantially reducing the costs and risks of bringing supplies from Earth. Many EMP product streams are suitable for use in advanced casting or additive manufacturing methods to allow for efficient use of resources.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

One potential terrestrial EMP application is the production of high-grade silicon metal or ferrosilicon. The hydrogen-enhanced carbon monoxide disproportionation method employed in the EMP system enables high rates of carbon deposition onto pure silica in the absence of a metal catalyst. Direct carbon deposition from CO generated during carbothermal reduction integrated with RWGS-electrolysis modules would reduce the purchase of carbon for the process while significantly reducing overall carbon emissions compared to current practice. In a closed-loop system including reverse water gas shift-electrolysis, silicon or ferrosilicon manufacturing could be accomplished with virtually no carbon emissions.

The EMP techniques have additional potential for the processing of lower-grade ores and feed stocks including residues and wastes. As higher-grade ores on Earth are more-difficult to find and mine, feed costs for existing technologies rise. The EMP can help to reduce overall processing costs by enabling the use of non-conventional feed stocks.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Ceramics
  • In Situ Manufacturing
  • Metallics
  • Models & Simulations (see also Testing & Evaluation)
  • Processing Methods
  • Prototyping
  • Resource Extraction

Robotic ISRU Construction of Planetary Landing and Launch Pad
Subtopic: Regolith Resources Robotics – R3

Small Business Concern
Honeybee Robotics, Ltd.
Brooklyn, NY

Research Institution
Michigan Technological University
Houghton,. MI

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Ph.D. Paul Susante

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 4

Technical Abstract

The Apollo 15 Lunar Module rocket plume excavated regolith which sandblasted at speeds in excess of 1000 m/s the Surveyor 2 lander 200 m away. A Curiosity rover instrument was permanently damaged during SkyCrane landing on Mars. Any future human surface missions to planetary bodies covered in regolith (e.g. Mars, Moon) would need to address ejecta created during landing or takeoff.

The intent of this project is to develop a fully robotic system for building landing pads on planetary bodies. The system will excavate in-situ regolith, sort rocks according to needed particle sizes, and layout a carefully designed landing/launch pad apron to lock in the small regolith particles.

To that extent, Honeybee/MTU propose to design and build a robotic tool to perform the following 3 actions: Pick up or excavate rocks, sort the rocks in three size ranges, and deposit said rocks in three layers with the purpose to stabilize the fine regolith in the secondary apron zone of Lunar and Martian landing pads for repeated landings and take-offs.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

NASA applications include building landing pads on planetary surfaces covered in regolith such as for example Mars and the Moon. Rocket thrust during landing or take off can damage not only surrounding infrastructure, robots and astronauts but the launch vehicle itself.

Several subsystems developed under this project will also be beneficial to in Situ Resource Utilization (e.g. extraction of volatiles such as water for fuel H2/O2, drinking water, and Oxygen). In particular, a mining rover would be applied to mining resources, while sorting technology would be needed to remove (as opposed to collect) rocks above certain size. Size sorting for ISRU is extremely important since large rocks cannot be processed in the ISRU reactors nor cannot be used for 3D printing applications.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Non-NASA space related applications would include mining of resources for commercial gain. As such, companies such as Shackleton Energy, deep Space Industries, Planetary Resources, and even SpaceX would take advantage of this technology.

Non-NASA/non-space applications could include robotic fabrication of temporary helicopter pads and airplane landing strips in desert environments such as Somalia for bringing humanitarian aid. Robots could be air-dropped ahead of the resupply airplanes or helicopters to construct needed landing zones.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Hardware-in-the-Loop Testing
  • Heat Exchange
  • Metallics
  • Prototyping
  • Robotics (see also Control & Monitoring; Sensors)
  • Simulation & Modeling
  • Verification/Validation Tools

Extruded Clay-Based Regoliths for Construction on Mars, Phobos and NEAs
Subtopic: In situ Resource Utilization – Production of Feedstock for Manufacturing and Construction

Small Business Concern
Deep Space Industries Inc.
Moffett Field, CA

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Stephen Covey

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 3

Technical Abstract

Research by Deep Space Industries and the University of Central Florida last year discovered an intriguing property of the carbonaceous asteroid simulants being developed.

We noticed that simply wetting the material, mixing it thoroughly, and drying it (in vacuum or air) at ambient temperature causes it to bond into solid, very hard rock, and we could control the hardness by the amount of water mixed into it before drying. On Earth when making bricks from clay we need to fire them in a kiln at temperatures as high as 1300⁰C to make them hard. Apparently simple air or vacuum drying of these minerals can substitute for the kiln effectively, making it easily hard enough for construction in the space environment.

Carbonaceous asteroids are not the only place in space where clayey regolith can be used for construction. Recently, scientists have shown that Mars has abundant clay deposits all over the globe. The minerals on Phobos appear similar to those in a certain type of carbonaceous asteroid including phyllosilicates (the type of minerals that include clays), so apparently Phobos may have abundant clay minerals, too. This suggests construction by low-temperature vacuum drying is possible on those bodies. It is not possible on the Moon, however, as there are no phyllosilicates on the Moon.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

It is important to develop methods for construction in space with local materials, because this reduces the cost of space exploration, provides material for spares and repairs, and makes missions more flexible and effective. The path to crewed Mars expeditions is particularly mass intensive, and a barrier that could be lowered through use of space resources.

Structures made from regolith will provide radiation shielding for the crew while working on the Martian surface or Phobos, as well as micrometeoroid shielding for the habitat module, and key thermal insulation.

In addition, clayey regolith on asteroids or Phobos can be converted into heat shields for re-entry into Mars’ or Earth’s atmosphere. Clayey regolith on Mars can be converted into landing pads to enable many-ton, human-tended landers to descend safely. It can be made into pavers or slabs for dust-free work zones on Phobos or Mars, or for roads on Mars, where ISRU operations are occurring.

An asteroid can be converted into a Mars Cycler spacecraft by 3D printing with its bulk mass.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

DSI is developing end-to-end technology pathways for prospecting, mining, and processing asteroid and other space resources into finished products, primarily to serve in-space markets. Current plans envision HarvestorsTM loaded with NEA resources entering a High Elliptical Earth Orbit (HEEO) with its perigee above geosynchronous orbit where additional processing would be conducted. While HEEO provides good access to geosynchronous orbit, the use of heat shields fabricated from space resources to enable aerobraking down to low Earth orbit would be an efficient alternative to expending significant propellant for the orbit change. Asteroid mining will focus primarily on the iron, nickel, chromium and cobalt that will be utilized for in-space applications. However, delivery to terrestrial markets of by-products such as platinum group metals may become more profitable if entry heat shields are made from asteroid regolith. There are also terrestrial opportunities for this technology. A 3D printing architecture that turns unavoidable clay shrinkage into an asset while drying makes 3D printing with clayey terrestrial regolith a viable technology. This will have commercial application in regions where cement is expensive or not locally available.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • In Situ Manufacturing
  • Machines/Mechanical Subsystems
  • Resource Extraction

In-Situ Generation of Polymer Concrete Construction Materials
Subtopic: In situ Resource Utilization – Production of Feedstock for Manufacturing and Construction

Small Business Concern
Luna Innovations, Inc.
Roanoke, VA

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr Benjamin Beck

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 4

Technical Abstract

Expanding the capability of human exploration is a primary goal for NASA and the In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) program which focuses on transforming available material resources on extraterrestrial surfaces into usable materials and products. By identifying, collecting, and converting local resources into products that can reduce mission mass, cost, and/or risk, a sustainable manned expedition to Mars becomes closer to reality. Bulk or modified regolith can be combined with a binder as a concrete aggregate to form a construction material that can be extruded into bricks or slabs for structures, shelters, landing pads, roads, and shielding. With this goal in mind, researchers at Luna have identified a polymer concrete formulation based on urea-formaldehyde (UF) that can be pressed into high compressive strength interlocking bricks suitable for construction. Luna�s binder system can also be produced in-situ from feed gases identified by NASA (N2, H2, CO2) while generating O2 and water. If successful, these UF polymers are also expected to have additional use in the production of plastic parts or components to support mission sustainability.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

Urea-formaldehyde polymers and their adducts are used in a myriad of plastic applications for electronics, utensils, structural components and surfaces. Having the capability to generate UF and melamine (MF) based materials from hydrogen and atmospheric gases off world presents a number of advantages.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Polymer concrete and interlocking brick systems both have great potential as the availability of traditional Portland cements become more scarce and communities seek more sustainable building materials.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Ceramics
  • Essential Life Resources (Oxygen, Water, Nutrients)
  • In Situ Manufacturing
  • Polymers
  • Processing Methods
  • Structures

ISP3: In-Situ Printing Plastic Production System for Space Additive Manufacturing
Subtopic: In situ Resource Utilization – Production of Feedstock for Manufacturing and Construction

Small Business Concern
Altius Space Machines, Inc.
Broomfield, CO

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Nathan A Davis

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 3

Technical Abstract

The ability to “live off of the land” via in-situ resource utilization has long been recognized as a key capability for enabling the affordable development of space. While most of the focus has been on the production of bulk quantities of rocket propellants such as Liquid Methane, Liquid Hydrogen, and Liquid Oxygen from extraterrestrial water and carbon dioxide sources, there has recently been an increase of interest in the production of structural materials as well from in-situ resources, particularly materials that can be used for Additive Manufacturing.

For this Phase 1 effort, Altius and its team members propose development of an In-Situ Printing Plastics Production (ISP3) system, that can take methane and oxygen inputs from various in-situ sources, and convert them into High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) filaments for use in a fused deposition modeling (FDM) style 3D printer, such as those developed by Made In Space. In Phase 1, Altius and its team members will simulate and test the three primary subsystems for ISP3: an Oxidative Coupling of Methane reactor that converts the methane into olefins and water, an olefin separation membrane that separates olefins from other outputs of the OCM reactor, and an innovative polymerization reactor that does not use physical catalysts for initiating the polyethylene polymerization reaction. Successful completion of these experiments and subsequent scaling and process refinement tasks will result in an updated ISP3 process design for Phase 2, raising the TRL of ISP3 from TRL 2 to TRL3. Phase 2 will focus on production of an integrated brassboard ISP3 prototype capable of producing small quantities of HDPE filament from methane and oxygen inputs. This will raise the system TRL to 5.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

In addition to long-term applications of ISP3 for producing HDPE for manned missions and colonies on places like Mars and Venus, Altius and its partners have developed a concept for demonstrating the ISP3 system on the International Space Station, for producing limited quantities of HDPE filament for the Made In Space Additive Manufacturing Facility, leveraging waste materials already on-board the ISS. This waste material source would likely be available on most other crew-tended space facilities, enabling the production of HDPE filaments anywhere humans go in the Solar System.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Three potential Non-NASA applications for ISP3 are:

  1. Production of HDPE on non-NASA space facilities, such as those planned by Bigelow Aerospace.
  2. Production of small quantities of HDPE for 3D printers on military submarines.
  3. Production of small quantities of HDPE for 3D printers using natural gas feedstocks at remote locations such as military forward operating bases, and research facilities in remote regions such as Antarctica.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • In Situ Manufacturing
  • Lasers (Machining/Materials Processing)
  • Polymers
  • Process Monitoring & Control
  • Processing Methods

Compact In-Situ Polyethylene Production from Carbon Dioxide
Subtopic: In situ Resource Utilization – Production of Feedstock for Manufacturing and Construction

Small Business Concern
Opus 12, Inc.
Berkeley, CA

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr. Etosha Cave

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 4

Technical Abstract

Opus 12 has redesigned the cathode of the commercially available PEM water electrolyzer such that it can support the reduction of carbon dioxide into ethylene and suppress the competing hydrogen reaction. When coupled with an ethylene polymerization reactor to make polyethylene our technology could make plastics out of the Martian CO2 atmosphere in a simple two-step process. PEM water electrolyzers have already been proved space worthy and are commercially available at various scales. Ethylene polymerization is well understood. Our innovation enables the creation of polyethylene from the most basic starting materials: CO2, water and electricity.

During Phase I, Opus 12 will show the feasibility of ethylene production in a single step by hitting key performance targets to optimize our existing prototype reactor. This optimization will be done by creating and testing different ratios of the catalysts to the other material components of the reactor. During Phase II, we will integrate our reactor design into commercially available PEM electrolyzers with a commercial partner and add a polymerization reactor to the system to produce polyethylene for additive manufacturing.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

Plastics for manufacturing in space traditionally have been shipped from earth. Opus 12 is developing a breakthrough technology, which will enable the creation of plastics using only CO2, water, and electricity as feedstocks. Our technology can take water and CO2 from the Martian atmosphere, and transform these molecules into polyethylene plastic. This opens up a variety of space manufacturing applications, including 3d printing to make tools and building materials.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

The electrochemical conversion of carbon dioxide (ECO2R) is a platform for novel, renewable, zero land use chemicals and fuels. Across the U.S., 48 million tons of CO2 emissions from fermentation and biogas can be converted into 15 million tons of low-carbon ethylene.

ECO2R will provide a new platform for manufacturing products from the most basic compounds: CO2, water, and electrical energy. ECO2R ethylene is just the beginning: our team has demonstrated ECO2R production of 16 different fuels and chemicals, including fuels such as ethanol and propanol.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • Conversion
  • Essential Life Resources (Oxygen, Water, Nutrients)
  • In Situ Manufacturing
  • Polymers
  • Sources (Renewable, Nonrenewable)
  • Storage

Micro-Channel Reactor for Processing Carbon Dioxide to Ethylene
Subtopic: In situ Resource Utilization – Production of Feedstock for Manufacturing and Construction

Small Business Concern
Reactive Innovations, LLC
Westford, MA

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Mr. Daniel Carr

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 2
End: 3

Technical Abstract

The processing of carbon dioxide is a continuing NASA need, ranging from separation processes to remove it from cabin air, to reaction processes that convert the Martian atmosphere to fuels. In support of future habitation activities on Mars, it is desired to process this high Martian concentration of carbon dioxide to ethylene, a chemical precursor that can be used to subsequently produce plastics including polyethylene, propylene, and polypropylene for building structures. Additionally, ethylene can be readily converted to ethanol and subsequently to sugar, nutrients that support biohabitation. Toward this goal, Reactive Innovations, LLC proposes to develop an electrochemical micro-channel reactor that can convert carbon dioxide to ethylene. The modular architecture of the micro-channel reactor enables the system to be scaled to increase throughput while the small feature sizes of the reactor enhance thermal and mass transfer processes increasing the ethylene yield.

During this Phase I program, the electrochemical reactions will be optimized to convert CO2 to ethylene maximizing the yield and rate. Single channel and multiple micro-channels will be produced using a new fabrication process that produces channels on the order of 100 microns wide. Characterization of the micro-channel reactor operating conditions will be conducted while producing ethylene to aid in scaling the process to larger production rates. Conversion of ethylene to polyethylene plastic will subsequently be demonstrated.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

Mars is the ultimate destination of NASA’s human exploration program where the goal of using resources at the site of exploration will reduce launch mass and cost, and enable new missions not possible otherwise. Processing the carbon dioxide to ethylene in a compact modular micro-channel reactor will provide a valuable chemical that can further be used to produce habitat structures and equipment as well as ethanol and sugar nutrients for life support.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

The conversion of carbon dioxide to ethylene can help reduce the concentration of this green house gas on earth while providing a valuable chemical feedstock. Over 109 million tonnes of ethylene is produced around the world, more than any other organic compound, where it is converted to a number of products. Newer production pathways to create this compound using micro-channel chemical reactors can help lower the capital and operating costs.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • In Situ Manufacturing
  • Organics/Biomaterials/Hybrids
  • Polymers
  • Processing Methods
  • Prototyping

OpenSWIFT-SDR for STRS Polyethylene Production from In-Situ Resources in Microchannel Reactors
Subtopic: In situ Resource Utilization – Production of Feedstock for Manufacturing and Construction

Small Business Concern
TDA Research, Inc.
Wheat Ridge, CO

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Dr. Gokhan Alptekin Ph.D.

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 4

Technical Abstract

According to NASA, it costs $10,000 to move a pound of material from earth into orbit, and 10 to 40 times more to movie to the Moon and Mars. Instead of paying to move each spare part, structure support, radiation shield and utensil (along with a wide range of other products) from Earth to Mars extraterrestrial in-situ resources (sunlight, CO2 and H2O) can be converted into polyethylene. A wide range of products including water bottles, thin films, bags, high pressure pipe and at almost any shape could be produced using additive manufacturing. Polyethylene is also a candidate for radiation shielding due to its high hydrogen content.

TDA Research, Inc. (TDA) proposes to develop a plastics manufacturing plant via in situ resource utilization. The plant consists of (1) a solar powered gas generation system to produce CO and H2 from indigenous CO2 and H2O, (2) a micro-channel olefin synthesis reactor that converts the synthesis gas (CO and H2) to light olefins, (3) a polyethylene synthesis reactor, (4) a reformer for processing unreacted gases and by-products back into more synthesis gas feedstock.

In Phase I, we will focus on demonstrating the viability of two of the key sub-systems: (1) testing a proprietary TDA catalyst in a micro-channel syngas-to-olefins reactor at small scale, and (2) refining a small scale polyethylene synthesis system that converts the range of products from the olefin synthesis process into polyethylene and other co-polymers. We will design a 5 kg/day polyethylene production plant, using lab data and performance specifications provided for existing systems such as the electro-chemical CO2 reduction to CO, hydrolysis for conversion of H2O to H2, and reformer technology for converting unreacted gases back to synthesis gas. Phase I will produce a detailed design of this system, including an estimate of the weight and volume.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The mechanical properties of the polyethylene can be tuned by selecting the catalyst and process conditions to provide feedstocks suitable for a wide variety of products via additive manufacturing, including radiation shielding, structures for habitat or infrastructure, thin films, tubing, fittings, housewares and many others. Since polyethylene is a thermoplastic, scraps and pieces at the end of their lifecycle can be shredded and re-melted for reuse in the additive manufacturing equipment. Using in situ resources to make these plastics products will significantly reduce the launch weight and cost for missions to the Moon and planets.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

The proposed synthesis gas-to-olefins process will find immediate industrial use. Polyethylene is one of the most produced chemicals with single plant producing as much as 2 billion pounds/year. The production of ethylene, which is the feedstock to these plants, from synthesis gas rather than naphtha or ethane cracking provides a cost-effective alternative (i.e., the synthesis gas can be generated by well-established natural gas reforming), allowing low cost abundant domestic natural gas to be used as a feedstock to a value added chemical.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • In Situ Manufacturing
  • Polymers
  • Sources (Renewable, Nonrenewable)