Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin makes solar cells from Moon dust
Blue Origin, a private aerospace company owned by Jeff Bezos, has come up with a technology that uses simulated Moon regolith to make solar cells and transmission wires. The resulting solar cells are claimed to survive the "harsh lunar environment" and last over a decade. Interestingly, the process involves zero carbon emissions, no water, and no toxic chemicals.
Why does this story matter?
- Blue Origin's technology could play an important role in sustainable lunar exploration. In order to support a long-term presence on the Moon, electric power is needed and the company's technology might be transformative in that aspect.
- Importantly, their technique involves directly manufacturing solar cells from the material available on the Moon, eliminating the need to ship expensive resources from Earth.
The process involves simulants that are similar to lunar regolith
The company uses a process known as Blue Alchemist, which involves simulants that are chemically and minerally similar to regolith that is found on the Moon's surface. Via a technique called molten regolith electrolysis, which involves passing an electric current, a reactor is used to separate iron, silicon, and aluminum from the oxygen moieties to which they are bound.
Typical silicon purification methods involve toxic and explosive chemicals
The process is claimed to purify silicon to "more than 99.999%." This is the level of purity that is required to make efficient solar cells. On Earth, conventional silicon purification methods utilize huge amounts of toxic and explosive chemicals. On the contrary, Blue Alchemist uses only sunlight and silicon, which is obtained from the purification process in the reactor.
Solar cells require cover glass to survive the lunar environment
Solar cells require something called a cover glass to thrive in the extreme lunar environment. Without the cover glass, the solar cells would only last for days. The company uses byproducts, obtained as a result of the molten regolith electrolysis process, to make the protective cover glass. This is claimed to confer a decade-long lifetime to solar cells.
Blue Origin secured a NASA contract for a Mars mission
Recently, Blue Origin secured a contract from NASA for the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (ESCAPADE) mission. The mission, targeted at Mars, will be launched on the company's New Glenn heavy-lift rocket, which is designed to compete with SpaceX's Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. New Glenn has not been tested yet and the orbital test flight could happen later this year.