Perseverance breathes fresh life into the mining and space sectors

When it comes to combining space ingenuity with mining pragmatism, all it takes is a little moxie.

Woodside Energy vice president of technology Jason Crusan displayed some grit of his own at the 12 Australian Space Forum in Adelaide last week, stating that his industry was looking to the stars for inspiration.

Efficiency. Resilience. Harsh environment operations.

All are shared challenges both industries could teach each other a lot about, he said. If only they would speak to each other more often.

If they did, the sky is the limit.

Crusan singled out the Mars rover Perseverance’s MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilisation Experiment).

It’s a 17kg box that breaks carbon dioxide into oxygen through a solid oxide electrolysis system at a rate of about 10 grams per hour – roughly that of a large tree. NASA says a version of this device, scaled up some 100 times, would support a human mission to the Red Planet. Not to mention eliminate the need for an otherwise massive cargo haul.

“When we send humans to Mars, we will want them to return safely, and to do that, they need a rocket to lift off the planet,” the project’s principal investigator, Michael Hech, said. “Liquid oxygen propellant is something we could make there and not have to bring with us.”

Read more: How did Perseverance make oxygen on Mars?

Crusan was thinking bigger.

Much bigger.

“If we could get MOXIE working, we’d want to process 500 tonnes a day,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of great uses for the MOXIE technology of Perseverance. But, again, it’s early days.

The former NASA engineer told the Space Forum that a significant hurdle to sharing such technology was that their engineers spoke different ‘languages’.

In mining, “modularity” is a term of scale – meaning a vast industrial plant split into different pieces.

In space, “modularity” is a standardised unit – such as a constellation of satellites that can work individually or together on the same task. 

Such differences aren’t only in engineering terminology. It’s also in their thinking.

“If we could actually think about how to make our energy or mining equipment better by reducing the size weight and mass, and then being able to build a thousand of them on a production line versus the very, very large builds assembled from things we had to bring onshore … there are some good lessons to be learned,” he said.

He used MOXIE as an example.

“It’s fundamentally a stack technology that could be built module (large scale) to basically crack CO2. If we could crack CO2 and make pure oxygen from it, our emissions would drop drastically for any CO2 source on any industrial plant. And MOXIE is doing that by creating an oxidiser for future human and robotic missions on Mars.”

Perseverance produced its first oxygen in April this year. The toaster-size unit successfully separated about five grams of oxygen from Mars’ mostly CO2 atmosphere.

That’s about 10 minutes of breathing time for an astronaut.

One tonne would be needed to support a Mars mission of four astronauts for a year. Seven tonnes would be required to power a rocket for the return trip to Earth.

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