NASA has selected 11 companies to take part in its $150 million Tipping Point grant program dedicated to sustaining human life in space, particularly on the Moon.
One awardee attracting international attention is Blue Origin, the solar manufacturing and space exploration company founded by Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin received $34.7 million, the largest grant in the program, to use its Blue Alchemist technology to manufacture solar cells on the Moon from scratch.
Blue Alchemist is a high-tech manufacturing system capable of fabricating solar cells from materials found in lunar regolith – the loose layer of dust, soil, and broken rocks covering the Moon’s surface. Using a reactor, the system melts the regolith at temperatures of 1,600°C and then deploys an electrolysis system to separate oxygen from elements such as iron, silicon, and aluminum.
“Our process purifies silicon to more than 99.999%,” said Blue Origin in a recent company blog post. “While typical silicon purification methods on Earth use large amounts of toxic and explosive chemicals, our process uses just sunlight and the silicon from our reactor.”
Earlier this year, Blue Origin was able to successfully demonstrate the Blue Alchemist reactor technology using materials that closely simulate the composition of lunar regolith. With this technology, NASA hopes to transition away from exporting goods into space and shift into a “scavenger” model of crafting goods using materials found already existing on the Moon.