The Elements of Innovation Discovered

NASA Lunar Forge winner earns funding

Missouri S&T team to continue research into Moon aluminum Metal Tech News - March 22, 2023

Under the lead of a doctoral aerospace engineering student at Missouri University of Science and Technology, a team of 12 undergraduates have come together to continue research on a project that is out of this world.

In the fall of 2022, NASA announced its eighth annual Breakthrough, Innovation, and Game-Changing (BIG) Idea Challenge.

You can read about the initial announcement of NASA's challenge at Latest NASA challenge tackles Moon forging in the August 17, 2022 edition of Metal Tech News.

Designed to develop technologies and methods to help realize its Artemis Program, aimed at building the first colony on the Moon, the federal space agency has implemented numerous calls-to-action with engaging and fun challenges.

Inviting university students from across the country, this latest BIG Idea challenge, Lunar Forge, targeted the metal production pipeline – from extracting the minerals to creating the structures and tools – on the Moon.

Now, the team of students that developed a proposal for NASA has earned its top spot, receiving over $160,000 in funding to further its research for future moon infrastructure and development.

Their application, entitled "Lunar In-Situ Aluminum Production Through Molten Salt Electrolysis" or LISAP-MSE, allowed the group to earn its win and continue research toward Earth's loftiest goal, living out amongst the stars.

"We are working to develop a new method for metal production on the moon, which could eventually allow buildings to be constructed on the lunar surface," said Jacob Ortega, the team leader. "The ultimate goal is to have a sustained presence on the moon."

Jumpstarting research, dreams

Ortega, who already earned himself a doctoral fellowship through S&T's Kummer Innovation and Entrepreneurship Fellows program, was introduced to the NASA challenge by his advisor, Daoru Han, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at Missouri S&T.

"After I learned more about the challenge, I realized this could be a perfect way to jumpstart my research," said Ortega. "I can focus on this challenge with my excellent team of undergraduate researchers, and then after the challenge is over, I can continue exploring this area while completing my dissertation."

With funding in the bag, the S&T team plans to work with anorthite, a material that is abundant on the Moon that contains large amounts of aluminum. With this knowledge, they will use a type of electrolysis to reduce the aluminum oxide in the anorthite into aluminum metal that could then be used for other purposes.

Han, who is a faculty advisor for the team, said this is a valuable research opportunity for the undergraduate students taking part in the study, and he appreciates their work.

The undergraduates themselves also expressed similar sentiments.

"Once I graduate, I am looking to go into the space sector," said Grant Baer, a junior in aerospace engineering from Webb City, Missouri. "This is a great way to get my foot in the door, make connections and hopefully be hired in this field one day."

"This is similar to the science fiction dream of humanity living in the stars," said Nicholas Graham, a sophomore in aerospace engineering from Parker, Texas, who compares the project to a childhood dream come true. "We are conducting research that will contribute to that effort."

"To be able to contribute to this type of new technology this early in my career is really cool," said Keaton Painter, a junior in mechanical engineering for Morrisville, Missouri. "Plus, this research is more of a necessity than just a project. Our work could have significant implications for future lunar missions."

Matthew Sherman, a sophomore metallurgical engineering major from Camdenton, Missouri, considered this research from a historical viewpoint.

"From a materials science perspective, every age throughout time is defined by its materials and its processes," he said. "It is exciting to research these processes that could be used on the lunar surface in the future."

In June, the team will provide NASA with a mid-project report with a lot at stake – a pass-or-fail review. If the team advances from there, it will submit a technical paper in October and then take part in the 2023 BIG Idea Forum to be held in Cleveland, Ohio, in November.

Ortega says he is actively recruiting additional teammates for this project, as it will require a large number of work hours. Those interested can contact him here. It is paid work.


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