China’s Chang’e-5: Returned lunar samples are offering new insight into long-term human stays on the Moon’s surface.
Credit: CNSA

The lunar soil brought back by China’s Chang’e-5 sample return mission in December 2020 shows that this material can be used as a catalyst to drive the electrocatalytic carbon dioxide conversion for fuel and oxygen production.

A research team suggests that a robotic system planted on the Moon could operate the whole process from catalyst preparation to electrocatalytic system setup.

Photo taking during Chang’e-5 surface sampling.
Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

The joint research team – from the University of Science and Technology of China, Nanjing University and China Academy of Space Technology — reports on their work – “In situ resource utilization of lunar soil for highly efficient extraterrestrial fuel and oxygen supply” — in the international journal National Science Review.

This work may provide some hints at how China envisions building up a lunar settlement.

Artist’s view of International Lunar Research Station to be completed by 2035. Credit: CNSA/Roscosmos

Extraterrestrial resources

There are limited fuel and oxygen supplies that restrict human survival on the Moon, the research paper notes.

What the team has demonstrated is on-the-spot (insitu) resource utilization (ISRU) of lunar soil for extraterrestrial fuel and oxygen production. “Our work represents an important strategy for sustainably supplying fuels and oxygen toward reaching the human settlement on the Moon,” the paper states.


(Left) Photograph of lunar soil and (Right) scanning electron microscope ( SEM) Image of the Cu/lunar soil.
Credit: Science China Press

“Given that the ultimate aim of the strategy reported in this work is to build up a large-scale unmanned electrocatalytic fuel and oxygen production system, the participation of the robotic system in the electrocatalytic CO2 conversion is highly desirable.

Highly efficient

What has been showcased is developing a process starting from catalyst preparation to electrocatalytic carbon dioxide (CO2) conversion, one that is so accessible that it can be operated without human involvement via a robotic system. The researchers used the Moon soil as a catalyst and directly loaded copper (Cu) on the lunar soil.

Specifically, the lunar soil is loaded with Cu species and employed for electrocatalytic CO2 conversion, demonstrating significant production of methane.

Credit: Yuan Zhong, et al.

“Such a highly efficient extraterrestrial fuel and oxygen production system is expected to push forward the development of mankind’s civilization toward reaching the extraterrestrial settlement,” the paper adds.

Robotic system

Lead author of the research paper is Yuan Zhong of the Hefei National Research Center for Physical Sciences at the Microscale, School of Chemistry and Materials Science, National Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory, School of Information Science and Technology, University of Science and Technology of China, Hefei.

Yuan and colleagues explains that the lunar soil used in this research was provided by the China National Space Administration which is the first lunar soil brought back to the Earth since the Soviet Union’s Luna-24 mission in 1976.

Chang’e-5 return capsule holding lunar specimens.
Credit: National Astronomical Observatories, CAS

“In situ resource utilization of lunar soil to achieve extraterrestrial fuel and oxygen production is vital for the human to carry out Moon exploitation missions. Considering that there are limited human resources at extraterrestrial sites, we proposed to employ the robotic system to perform the whole electrocatalytic CO2 conversion system setup,” said Yujie Xiong, one of the lead authors of the study in a Science China Press statement.

To review the full paper — “In situ resource utilization of lunar soil for highly efficient extraterrestrial fuel and oxygen supply” – go to:

https://academic.oup.com/nsr/advance-article/doi/10.1093/nsr/nwac200/6712344

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