NASA Funds 3 Small Business Projects Focused on In-situ Use of Lunar Resources

Astronaut working on the moon (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA has selected three companies to continue development of technologies that will allow Artemis astronauts to extract oxygen from and 3D print parts using lunar regolith under the space agency’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

The Phase II awards to Blueshift, L’Garde and Air Squared are worth up to $750,000 apiece over 24 months. Each company previously received Phase I awards to begin developing the technologies.

Blueshift’s Sintering End Effector for Regolith (SEER) “enables efficient transmission (>82.2%) of Concentrated Solar Energy (CSE) for a wide range of high temperature processes including additive manufacturing, additive construction, and oxygen production on the Moon. SEER enables heating lunar regolith to maintain a focal point temperature between 1,000-1,100°C and sintering at translation speeds of between 1-10 mm/s,” the company said in its project summary.

“SEER’s primary NASA application is the fabrication of 3D printed components using solar power and regolith as the only feedstock,” added Blueshift, which is headquartered Broomfield, Colo. “SEER may be used to replace fossil fuels in high temperature thermochemical processes for industrial decarbonization at locations on Earth with abundant sunlight.”

L’Garde, which is located in Tustin, Calif., will “further develop a lightweight and low stow volume solar concentrator for use in lunar in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) applications, specifically for oxygen extraction from lunar regolith.”

“It has been demonstrated by many scientific groups that water can be harvested from regolith which can be used to sustain life on the lunar surface as well as provide fuel for deep space travel. This technology can also be used concentrate light on solar arrays to generate energy or power,” the company said.

Air Squared of Broomfield, Colo., is developing a contamination-tolerant vacuum pump that can be used in the extraction of oxygen from lunar regolith.

“While processing the regolith, some of the released gasses have acidic elements that must be handled for oxygen production. For this reason, NASA has expressed the need for a contamination-tolerant vacuum pump which can recover vapors from the pressurized volume before discarding the spent regolith,” the company said in its project summary.

The three proposal summaries are below.

Sintering End Effector for Regolith
Subtopic: Extraction of Oxygen and Water from Lunar Regolith

Blueshift, LLC
Broomfield, CO

Principal Investigator: Ryan Garvey

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 4
End: 5

Duration: 24 months

Technical Abstract

Outward Technologies proposes to continue development of a Sintering End Effector for Regolith (SEER) in Phase II. The SEER system enables efficient transmission (>82.2%) of Concentrated Solar Energy (CSE) for a wide range of high temperature processes including additive manufacturing, additive construction, and oxygen production on the Moon.

SEER enables heating lunar regolith to maintain a focal point temperature between 1,000-1,100°C and sintering at translation speeds of between 1-10 mm/s. SEER may be interfaced with a primary solar concentrator through a fiber optic waveguide, or through a free space optical design for dramatically improved transmission efficiencies and reduced launch mass.

The SEER design is scalable, efficient, durable, lightweight, and an ideal choice for regolith sintering and ISRU on the Moon. SEER enables continuous operation for high temperature thermochemical processes without causing damage to sensitive optics. The design is resistant to fouling from regolith dust, spallation, sputtering, and gases produced with high processing temperatures.

The objectives of the proposed Phase II project are to advance the SEER TRL from 4 to 5 by documenting test performance in a simulated operational environment, establishing predicted performance for subsequent SEER development phases, and defining scaling requirements for SEER’s use in additive construction and manufacturing on the Moon with the ultimate goal of being scalable to 11.1 kW of delivered solar energy.

Self-cleaning operations will be explored and predicted maintenance schedules will be established in Phase II. These proposed Phase II efforts mark a significant addition to NASA’s capabilities for lunar ISRU, hydrogen and carbothermal reduction, and the sintering of regolith to produce parts and structures on the Moon with regolith as the only feedstock.

Potential NASA Applications

SEER’s primary NASA application is the fabrication of 3D printed components using solar power and regolith as the only feedstock. SEER addresses 2020 taxonomy areas TX07.1.4 Resource Processing for Production of Manufacturing, Construction, and Energy Storage Feedstock Materials by utilizing sintered regolith as a fabrication material; and TX07.1.3 Resource Processing for Production of Mission Consumables for heating regolith with high thermodynamic efficiencies to produce oxygen through carbothermal reduction and related processes.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

SEER is used to provide controlled, high temperatures for powering thermochemical processes with concentrated solar energy. SEER may be used to replace fossil fuels in high temperature thermochemical processes for industrial decarbonization at locations on Earth with abundant sunlight.

Lightweight and Low Stow Volume Solar Concentrator for Lunar Based In-Situ Resource Utilization
Subtopic Title: Extraction of Oxygen and Water from Lunar Regolith

L’Garde, Inc. 
Tustin, CA

Principal Investigator: Linden Bolisay    

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 3
End: 6

Duration: 24 months                         

Technical Abstract

The objective of the proposed Phase II effort is to further develop a lightweight and low stow volume solar concentrator for use in lunar in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) applications, specifically for oxygen extraction from lunar regolith.

In the Phase I effort, a design of a full scale solar concentrator was created, and analysis showed the solar concentrator meeting NASA performance requirements. Also small scale prototypes were fabricated and deployment test successfully demonstrated the stowage and deployment concept.

In the Phase II effort, we will optimize the design of the solar concentrator as well develop the overall ISRU system, fabricate a demonstration-level prototype, characterize the solar concentration performance, and perform environmental test to understand how performance is affected.

Potential NASA Applications

The development of a lunar based solar concentrator directly fulfills needs of the NASA plans described in the solicitation topic and will contribute to ISRU technology which is critical for the success of the Artemis program. It has been demonstrated by many scientific groups that water can be harvested from regolith which can be used to sustain life on the lunar surface as well as provide fuel for deep space travel. This technology can also be used concentrate light on solar arrays to generate energy or power.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Outside of NASA applications, other government missions that can utilize this technology such as Earth-based concentrated solar power industry, other applications that support “The Green Initiative”, and deployable antennas for military and commercial applications.                      

Phase II Lunar ISRU Contaminant Tolerant Scroll Vacuum Pump (CTSVP)
Subtopic Title: Extraction of Oxygen and Water from Lunar Regolith

Air Squared, Inc.
Broomfield, Colo.

Principal Investigator: John Wilson

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 3
End: 5

Duration: 24 months

Technical Abstract

NASA seeks to develop novel oxygen extraction concepts that allow for the production of oxygen on the surface of the Moon using Lunar regolith. As part of this system, in situ resource utilization (ISRU) process requires a pressurized volume to be evacuated to prevent the loss of products to the vacuum of space.

While processing the regolith, some of the released gasses have acidic elements that must be handled for oxygen production. For this reason, NASA has expressed the need for a contamination-tolerant vacuum pump which can recover vapors from the pressurized volume before discarding the spent regolith. The pump has two firm requirements:

  1. Evacuate a 50 L volume from an initial pressure of 5 PSIA down to 5 torr in less than two minutes when discharging against a pressure of 1 atm (14 PSIA)
  2. Capable of pumping corrosive trace substances such as HCl, HF, and H2S without adversely affecting performance (pump down time or power consumption) or life (number of cycles)

One promising ISRU oxygen extraction method is Gustafoson’s carbothermal system. This system is designed to collect oxygen from the Lunar regolith utilizing the carbothermal reduction process. The process may be summarized as a reduction of collected minerals containing metallic oxides (regolith) with carbonaceous source to form CO and H2, followed by a reduction of CO with H2 to form CH4 and water, and finally electrolysis of the water to form O2 and H2.

While unnecessary on the pilot tested on Earth, a deployable system requires a contaminant tolerant vacuum pump to evacuate a process vessel to prevent the loss of any products or consumables to the vacuum of space. To accomplish this request, Air Squared is proposing the development of a robust, oil-free, Contamination-Tolerant Scroll Vacuum Pump (CTSVP).

Potential NASA Applications

By drawing a vacuum to preserve ISRU consumables in a pressurized volume and maintaining optimal performance while handling contaminant laden regolith or atmospheric vapors without contaminating downstream processes, the CTSVP fills two ISRU technological gaps. Therefore, Air Squared has identified two promising marketplaces for the CTSVP to be pursued in Phase II:

  • Future Lunar SOXE ISRU processing missions
  • Future Mars carbothermal ISRU processing missions

Potential Non-NASA Applications

  • Direct sales to SOXE ISRU processing developers and manufacturers
  • Direct sales to carbothermal ISRU processing developers and manufacturers