Airbus has developed a system to extract oxygen and metal from lunar regolith

New technologies using material found in space are constantly popping up, sometimes from smaller companies and sometimes from larger companies. In 2020, one of the biggest companies of all announced a technology that could have significant implications for future lunar exploration missions planned over the next decade. European aerospace giant Airbus has developed the ROXY (Regolith to OXYgen and Metals Conversion) system.

ROXY creates not only oxygen, a vital resource for human breathing and also rocket fuel, but it also produces metals that can be used to make tools, equipment and even structures on the Moon. And it does so simply from the regolith that is present everywhere on the lunar surface.

This process is similar to MOXIE, the experiment that the Perseverance rover brought with it when it landed on the red planet in 2021. However, when Airbus announced a successful test of ROXY in October 2020, MOXIE had not yet been tested and it was barely his way to Mars.

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UT video explaining ISRU as a concept.

MOXIE was also not designed to create metals, which is one of ROXY’s advantages. Those metals can be used in processes like making tools, containers, and other useful items on the Moon itself rather than bringing them up from Earth. It fits perfectly with efforts to bring 3D printing technologies to the Moon, and many other companies are rushing to push these efforts forward.

Additionally, ROXY’s process is relatively environmentally friendly compared to metal fabrication methods currently used on Earth. A company press release said ROXY could be used as an emissions-free process to obtain metals that are otherwise harvested using perfluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas.

However, developing this system didn’t just require the expertise of one company. Airbus collaborated on the project with various universities and other companies, including Fraunhofer, the German research institute, and a team from Boston University.

Basic animation showing the Airbus ROXY process.
Credit – Pela Estrada Fora YouTube channel

Most recently, in September 2021, Airbus partnered with the Mexican Space Agency to use ROXY as part of an on-site Mexican resource utilization program in the country. The project also integrates other technologies from Dereum Labs, a Mexican start-up focused on ISRU. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much news on that collaboration or much information on further development of ROXY over the past three years more generally. The story was also not well received, even when a successful test was announced in 2021.

Hopefully, the lack of media attention doesn’t mean that this potentially game-changing technology is lost in the shuffle of technologies intended to catalyze the new space economy. But if it does, it could be because there are so many other potential options for turning moondust into something useful.

Learn more:
Airbus – ROXY transforms moon dust into oxygen
Airbus – Airbus, the Mexican space agency and Mexican start-up Dereum Labs collaborate on technologies for the extraction of lunar resources
UT – There is enough oxygen in lunar regolith to support billions of people on the moon
UT – Understand how to breathe moon regolith

Main picture:
An illustration of a moon base that could be built using 3D printing and ISRU, In-Situ Resource Utilization. Credit: RegoLight, visualization: Liquifer Systems Group, 2018

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