Teams Forge Forward in NASA Moon Metal Production Challenge

NASA Metal Production Pipeline on Moon

NASA’s 2023 annual Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-Changing (BIG) Idea Challenge asks college students to design technologies that will support a metal production pipeline on the Moon – from extracting metal from lunar minerals to creating structures and tools. Credit: NASA/Advanced Concepts Lab

Seven university teams were selected to develop concepts supporting metal production on the Moon in NASA’s 2023 annual Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-Changing (BIG) Idea Challenge: Lunar Forge.

The awards total about $1.1 million, with values between $120,000 and $180,000 based on each team’s proposed concept. The challenge is a unique collaboration between NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate’s (STMD) Game Changing Development (GCD) program and NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement Space Grant Project.

The 2023 BIG Idea Challenge awardees are:

Colorado School of Mines
Lunar Alloy Metal Production Plant (LAMPP)
Advisors: Dr. Christopher Dreyer, Dr. George Sowers

Massachusetts Institute of Technology with Honeybee Robotics
Artemis Steelworks: Advancing Reactor Technologies for Electrolytic Manufacturing of In-Situ Steel
Advisors: Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman, Dr. Antoine Allanore, Dr. Olivier De Weck, Dr. Martin Culpepper, George Lordos

Missouri University of Science and Technology
Lunar In-Situ Aluminum Production Through Molten Salt Electrolysis (LISAP-MSE)
Advisors: Dr. Daoru Han, Dr. Jeffrey Smith, Dr. Fateme Rezaei, Dr. David Bayless, Dr. William Schonberg, Dr. Daniel Stutts

Northwestern University with Wearifi, Inc.
ACRE: Autonomous Casting RovEr
Advisor: Dr. Ian McCue

Pennsylvania State University with RFHIC and Jacobs Space Exploration Group
Development of the Smelting with Microwave Energy for Lunar Technologies (SMELT) System for In-Situ Resource Processing
Advisors: Dr. Sven Bilen, Dr. Aleksandra Radlinska

University of North Texas with Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Processes Institute, UNT; Enabled Engineering
Solid-state Integrated Manufacturing Process for Lunar Environment (SIMPLE)
Advisors: Dr. Rajiv S. Mishra, Dr. Hector Siller, Dr. Ravi Sankar Haridas

University of Utah with Powder Metallurgy Research Laboratory
Production of Steel from Lunar Regolith through Carbonyl Iron Refining (CIR)
Advisors: Dr. Hong Y. Sohn, Dr. Michael F. Simpson, Dr. Michael L Free

In-situ resource utilization (ISRU) – or the ability to use naturally existing resources – is fundamental to a steady cadence of Artemis missions and a sustained human presence on the Moon and a lunar economy. Metal’s strength and resistance to corrosion make it key to building structures needed for a lunar base, such as pipes, cables, landing pads, transport rails, and pressure vessels to contain volatiles like fuel. However, the metal materials for infrastructure are heavy, making them challenging and costly to transport from Earth.

Producing metal products on the Moon is an extensive process that includes:

  • Metal detecting, specifically for minerals such as anorthite and ilmenite
  • Material refining
  • Forming materials for additive manufacturing
  • Production of metal matrix composites
  • Testing and qualification of the ISRU-derived metal products

Proposing teams submitted a wide variety of concepts for technologies needed at any point in the lunar metal production pipeline.

“The BIG Idea Challenge expands opportunities for students and faculty to immerse themselves in real NASA projects, as well as supports student pursuits in STEM,” said NASA’s Space Grant Project Manager Tomas Gonzalez-Torres. “Through participating in the BIG Idea Challenge, these teams are making big strides at the university level as well as toward excellence in their future careers.”

Once funded, teams continue designing, building, and testing their concepts in advance of a November 2023 forum, where their work will be showcased to the public and judged by a panel of NASA and industry experts. The forum allows the university-led teams to interface with ongoing lunar mission planning discussions that are underway within STMD’s Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative (LSII). Once developed, these projects are incubated by universities, and could augment technology currently in development by NASA.

The BIG Idea Challenge is an initiative supporting GCD’s efforts to rapidly mature innovative and high-impact capabilities and technologies for infusion in a broad array of future NASA missions. The challenge provides undergraduate and graduate students and faculty the opportunity to design, develop, and demonstrate their technology in an intensive project-based program over the course of eighteen months, with NASA engineers and scientists reviewing the possibility of adopting innovations initiated and furthered by the university teams.

The BIG Idea Challenge is one of several Artemis student challenges and is managed by the National Institute of Aerospace.

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