For decades scientists and engineers have talked about using the dusty lunar surface to manufacture solar panels. All of the key ingredients for solar cells are present in this rocky and dusty regolith on the surface of the Moon—silicon, iron, magnesium, aluminum, and more.
The abundance of these ingredients has led to hundreds of research papers exploring this idea since lunar soil was returned to Earth during the Apollo program but relatively little engineering development. In other words, we don’t know whether covering the Moon with solar panels is simply a great science fiction idea, or if it would actually work.
But now, we may have an answer to the question. On Friday, in a blog post not even promoted by the company’s Twitter account or a news release, Blue Origin quietly said its “Blue Alchemist” program has been working on this very topic for the last two years. The company, founded by Jeff Bezos, has made both solar cells and electricity transmission wires from simulated lunar soil—a material that is chemically and mineralogically equivalent to lunar regolith.
The engineering work is based on a process known as “molten regolith electrolysis,” and Blue Origin has advanced the state of the art for solar cell manufacturing. In this process, a direct electric current is applied to the simulated regolith at a high temperature, above 1,600° Celsius. Through this electrolysis process, iron, silicon, and aluminum can be extracted from the lunar regolith. Blue Origin says it has produced silicon to more than 99.999 percent purity through molten regolith electrolysis.
The key advance made by Blue Alchemist is that its engineers and scientists have taken the byproducts of this reaction—and these materials alone—to fabricate solar cells as well as the protective glass cover that would allow them to survive a decade or longer on the lunar surface.
Blue Origin will attempt to market the technology to NASA for use by its Artemis program to return humans to the Moon in a “sustainable” way. NASA and its international partners seek to differentiate Artemis from the Apollo program by more extended stays on the Moon and building infrastructure such as power systems.
“Although our vision is technically ambitious, our technology is real now,” the company said in its blog post. “Blue Origin’s goal of producing solar power using only lunar resources is aligned with NASA’s highest priority Moon-to-Mars infrastructure development objective.”
This is a notable research breakthrough, as the same electrolysis process could also be used to produce metals for building habitats and other structures, as well as oxygen. These are all important for “living off the land” if humans are to avoid the expense of needing to bring everything from Earth to live and work in space. While it is a long way from lab experiments to manufacturing on the Moon, these experiments are a critical first step.
Blue Origin recently split its “Advanced Development Programs” business unit into two units, with one focused on in-space systems such as its Orbital Reef space station, and another focused solely on lunar activities. It is exciting to see Blue Origin begin to publicly discuss its plans for a fully reusable lunar architecture. The company has been hiring actively in this area for years, and there is much interesting work like Blue Alchemist going on behind the scenes.