Jeff Bezos‘ private spaceflight company, Blue Origin, claims to have made significant progress in the development of solar panels. Blue Origin has created prototypes of solar cells using materials from the lunar surface based on regolith.
The breakthrough could have significant implications for future lunar missions, providing a means to produce solar panels directly on the moon instead of having to transport these equipment from Earth. This results in lower costs due to the reduced weight of material to be shipped first into orbit and then towards our satellite.
The production process
The production process starts with the creation of material that chemically and mineralogically simulates lunar regolith. This ensures that the starting material is as realistic as possible and not just a mixture of lunar-derived oxides. The process purifies silicon to over 99.999%. This level of purity is necessary to make efficient solar cells.
While typical silicon purification methods on Earth use large amounts of toxic and explosive chemicals, Blue Origin’s process uses only sunlight and reactor-grade silicon. Materials such as iron, silicon, and aluminum are extracted from regolith by passing an electric current through the molten material. The process, which the company calls Blue Alchemist, enables the production of solar panels with protective glass and complete wiring.
In addition, the by-product of the process is oxygen, which can be used for life support or rocket propulsion. The company has claimed to produce solar cells and transmission cables since 2021. The concept will of course have to be tested and verified in the lunar environment with actual lunar regolith, but the development could be a major enabling factor for exploration.
“Blue Origin’s goal of producing solar cells using only lunar resources such as regolith is in line with the infrastructure development goal, one of NASA‘s priorities” a company statement said. Space agencies and private companies are also looking for ways to use lunar regolith. Among the existing very promising projects, one aims to produce bricks for construction while another aims for direct oxygen production.