Transforming Mars dirt into metallic iron
Iron smelting process would use Martian sun, air, and regolith Metal Tech News - August 17, 2022
Last updated 8/23/2022 at 7:03pm
Food, water, breathable air, shelter, and clothing – these fundamental elements of human survival here on Earth will be even more critical for early Mars colonists. With delivery fees measured in millions of dollars and wait times for rush orders being at least six months, Red Planet pioneers are going to need to be able to produce their own survival goods.
Researchers at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia are developing a process that co-produces two of these basic needs – oxygen for breathing and iron for building.
Led by Swinburne Professor Akbar Rhamdhani, this team has devised a way to harness faint sunlight and abundant atmospheric carbon to transform Mars dirt into metallic iron.
Mars regolith, a pulverized layer of dust and rocks deposited across the Mars surface from billions of years of asteroid collisions, is made up of more than 15% iron. This layer of oxidized iron gives the Red Planet its hue and offers an ideal building material that humans are accustomed to working with.
While Mars is rich in iron, it is lacking in the oxygen that future colonists will need for both breathing and creating their own fuel to launch off the Red Planet for a visit to the home world or to explore deeper into the solar system. To test the idea of using a tree-like process to generate this gas critical to breathing and combustion, NASA's Perseverance rover is equipped with a device called MOXIE – Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment – that converts the abundant carbon dioxide in Mars atmosphere into oxygen.
The Swinburne team's iron-making process envisions using carbon produced as a byproduct of generating oxygen with an industry-scale version of MOXIE and a furnace that concentrates solar energy to melt the Mars regolith. The metallic iron created from the Martian smelting process can be used for building materials, tools, machines, and a wide variety of products that will make living on the Red Planet easier and less dependent on deliveries from Earth.
"We would like to develop a metal extraction process on Mars that is truly utilising in-situ resources – without bringing reactants from Earth – to support further human mission and development on Mars," said Rhamdhani. "If you wanted to build something large on Mars without having to pay to launch everything from Earth (think large satellites, Mars colonies, refueling depots and more), this could be a very valuable process."
Alan Duffy, director of the Space Technology and Industry Institute at Swinburne, says the Martian iron smelting process involves the very latest industrial technologies, as well as expertise from across the university.
"It shows that living on an alien world won't be easy, but we now know how we might be able to make the structures for future missions to the Red Planet," he said.
The Swinburne team has published the first detailed study of its kind on metal production on another planet in the paper Metals extraction on Mars through carbothermic reduction in the September 2022 edition of the peer-reviewed journal Acta Astronautica.
The researchers are currently working closely with the minerals and space technology research groups at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation to take the Martian iron-making research to the next stage.
In similar space forging news, NASA has initiated its eighth annual BIG Idea Challenge to engage university students across the country to design a metal production pipeline on the Moon in support of its Artemis program. You can read the details about the challenge at Latest NASA challenge tackles Moon forging in this week's edition of Metal Tech News.