Space technologies

Lunar oxygen is not a moonshot, nor is net-zero steel

Helios set out a few years ago to tackle a big challenge for space travel: the high cost of supplying oxygen for astronauts and for use in rocket propulsion systems. The solution was to separate oxygen from materials on the Moon. In testing the technology, they happened upon a discovery that could speed up the transition to net-zero emissions on Earth.

#9-December 2023

Sometimes solutions to problems can come from the wildest notions. That can be said of Helios. The Israeli company set out in 2018 to develop technologies that would make living on the Moon – and beyond – economically feasible. In so doing, Helios inadvertently found that its technology can help tackle a major challenge on Earth, which is how to reduce carbon emissions from the steel industry in the race against climate change.

Helios, based on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, has developed space technologies to separate oxygen from regolith, a blanket of loose dust and rock on the Moon. This breakthrough is important for reducing the cost of space travel, given that much of the expense involves supplying oxygen from Earth for astronauts and for use in rocket propulsion systems. Given that 45% of the soil mass on the Moon is made of oxygen, finding a way to extract this will reduce the cost of future space activities because oxygen accounts for more than 75% of the propellant’s weight.

The challenge for Helios was to produce oxygen and construction materials from iron ore-like lunar soil without using carbon as is traditionally done with iron oxide on Earth.

Helios came up with a technology based on sodium as the reducing agent. In a two-step process, sodium is used to first reduce transition metals like iron and then the byproduct sodium oxides are dissociated to reclaim the sodium in metal form. In testing the technology, Helios found that it could produce iron from iron ore using only thermal energy without any direct CO2 emissions.

A game-changer for steel

Helios reached out to the steel industry to share its discovery as a potential game-changer for sustainability. The technology, it found, can be used with the same energy infrastructure in steel mills, helping to reduce the cost of adoption and speed up its implementation. The process also runs at lower temperatures, meaning that it uses less energy and can cut production costs compared with current methods.

This could revolutionize the reduction of mineral ores into metals to help in the global shift to a greener future, in particular by cleaning up the steel industry so it can achieve sustainable growth.

That is a tall order. Steel is a big source of global carbon emissions, accounting for 7% of the total. The technologies to decarbonize the industry have been found to have some advantages, but also a fair share of limitations. Carbon capture and storage, for example, requires large investments and storage availability is lacking. Recycling is a slower process because there is not enough to meet demand. Hydrogen-based processes, while promising, are expensive, while electricity-driven solutions like molten oxide electrolysis and electrowinning are energy-intensive and costly because of their links to energy prices and productivity.

Helios’ process has yet another advantage. It works with low-grade iron ore, which is important for ensuring a reliable and sustainable supply of the raw material for steel production given the threat of a future shortage of high-grade iron ore.

Andrea Siciliani, an aerospace engineer and climate technology investor at TechEnergy Ventures, says all Helios’ work in developing technologies for space applications shows their commitment to innovative solutions and a strong focus on sustainability.

“Their technology utilizes a low-temperature, thermally-driven process that has the potential to become more cost-effective than state-of-the-art methods, with the added benefit of producing zero CO2 emissions,” Siciliani says.

TechEnergy, the venture capital arm of Tecpetrol, has invested in Helios for this disruptive technology and its strong and diverse team of experts in aerospace, electrochemistry, material science, and mechanical engineering. The technology can not only help accelerate the energy transition to net-zero by reducing emissions in the steel industry, but it extends beyond iron production, offering potential applications for other transition metals essential to the energy transition like copper, nickel and zinc. This bodes well for accelerating the transition to a cleaner and greener future – all at a lower cost.