Phys.org is reporting that a German engineer named Thorsten Denk, working at the Plataforma Solar de Almeria in Spain, has developed the first step for a solar-powered reactor that can make water and then oxygen from Lunar Soil. The use of such a machine would enable lunar explorers to live off the land and not have to ship oxygen from Earth.

How does the solar reactor work?

The solar reactor takes in a kind of lunar soil called ilmenite (FETIO3) that is common on the moon and consists of iron, titanium, and oxygen. The machine starts by “smoothing” the jagged edges of the ilmenite particles and causing it to behave like a liquid along with hydrogen.

The second process causes the hydrogen to react with the oxygen content of the material, extracting it as water. The last process would be to apply electrolysis, to split the oxygen and the hydrogen. The hydrogen could, therefore, be reused to process more material.

So far the device, which does not yet perform the final electrolysis step, weighs 400 kilograms and uses less than five kilowatts of power. It can create 700 grams of water in an hour and, when the final step is added, produce 2.5 grams of oxygen in four hours.

The solar reactor oxygen machine has implications for future lunar colonists.

According to Quora, an average adult takes in .1 grams of oxygen in a single breath. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the average person takes 12 to 20 breaths a minute or 1.2 grams to 2 grams.

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That means that either Denk’s machine has to scale up considerably or else it would have to be used for some months to create an oxygen supply before humans arrive to use it. The oxygen could be recycled to some extent, using plants or some other device that generates photosynthesis.

Probably the best bet would be to scale up Denk’s solar reactor so that it can create enough oxygen to sustain a lunar base in combination with recycling. Naturally, the device would not work during the two-week long lunar night, unless it is sited on one of the “peaks of eternal light” near the lunar Poles where the sun shines all or most of the time.

The side product of the process would be a titanium iron ore that could be used for building material and other industrial purposes. In 2005, NASA used the Hubble Space Telescope to map out deposits of ilmenite on the Lunar Surface. The material could be gathered up by robotic miners and then transported to the lunar base for processing.