Lunar Mining
Section 2.2.
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Mining Gasses from the Lunar Regolith

Oxygen is a part of all lunar rock. Rocks are silicates, oxides of silicon, plus other elements, usually also expressible as oxides of metals. The lunar crust is 46% oxygen by weight.

Hydrogen enjoys no similar essential relationship at all. There is only about 1 ton of hydrogen per 10,000 tons of lunar "top soil" or regolith. (This compares with 4,600 tons of oxygen.) Accummulatively, that's enough, if gathered, to produce a nice-sized lake. Yet 1 part in 10,000 is a lot drier than the driest desert on Earth.

There is good news in this, however. Unlike the oxygen which is chemically bound and can only be released by chemical processing or a good deal of heat, the hydrogen exists proton by proton loosely absorbed to the surfaces of the fine lunar dust particles. Unlike lunar oxygen, it is not native to the Moon, but a gift of 4 billion years of incessant buffeting of the lunar surface by the Solar Wind. So it is a gift of the Sun. Accompanying the hydrogen is a much lesser endowment of carbon, nitrogen, and helium, all valuable. A tiny fraction of the helium is helium-3, a strategic isotope that is the ideal fuel for still-to-be-engineered fusion reactors. (One shuttle external tankful of liquid He-3 would be enough, if there were the fusion plants to burn it, to supply all the electrical power the US uses in a year.)

All of these Solar Wind gasses, hydrogen being the bulk of it, can be easily harvested. We just have to run over the surface with a combine which picks up the top layer, heats it to 600 degrees F and then lays the soil right back down. The heat will have driven off the Solar Wind gasses which can be collected and separated.

This can be done as a separate harvesting operation. But it makes more sense to design all regolith-moving equipment to do the job in the process of site preparation, grading and building roads, excavations, piling shielding on top of habitats, and mining. Even if we don't need or are not prepared to use all these gasses right away, stockpiling them in a tank farm, separated or not, will place us in a much better position strategically to enter the Moon's industrial age.

The solar wind hydrogen will give us some, but almost certainly not enough fast enough to meet settlement needs, unless a full-scale helium-3 harvesting operation is in effect. There remains the slim chance we will find economically mineable water-ice fields in permashade areas at the poles. Clementine hinted at this at the south pole, but that probe really did not have the needed instrumentation to give a definite answer. Lunar Prospector will have that instrumentation.

Lunar Mining

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