RWTH Space Day: Interview with Dr. Ksenija Milicevic Neumann

  Copyright: © IME

To establish human presence in space and reach distant planetary systems beyond our own, oxygen and metallic materials play an important role. Dr. Ksenija Milicevic Neumann is conducting research at Professor Bernd Friedrich's Institute of Metallurgical Process Technology and Metal Recycling (IME) on the process of molten salt electrolysis, which can be used to split the regolith that is found on the Moon and Mars.

RWTH: Dr. Milicevic Neumann, what is molten salt electrolysis and what can it be used for in space?

Milicevic Neumann: Molten salt electrolysis is a process that can be used to produce or dissolve metals and gases, such as oxygen, from rock. It is a core process for oxygen and metal production on the Moon, Mars, and other planets, and holds great promise for use in space. We are studying regolith, a loose rock that exists on the surface of the Moon and Mars and is the most accessible and abundant resource there. Regolith is a mixture of metal oxides, and we are trying to dissociate it into oxygen and metals using the process of molten salt electrolysis.

RWTH: What are oxygen and metals needed for on alien planets?

Milicevic Neumann: Oxygen is necessary for breathing if we are to establish a human presence in space. But to build habitats and an infrastructure, we also need metals. We can produce them with this process as well. Those are the two main goals. Oxygen is also needed not only to breathe, but people use it as an oxidizer for propellants. Our goal is not just the moon or Mars, but to fly to other galaxies at some point.

RWTH: What role does sustainability play in your research?

Milicevic Neumann: From the very beginning, we try to look at everything sustainably, that is, to reuse or recycle everything that comes out of a process. We have filed the patent "MOSARI" for a zero-waste concept that uses molten salt electrolysis and metallothermal reduction for regolith processing. It's not just about producing oxygen and alloys; rather we need to do it in a sustainable way, such as using the residues from the processes as building materials. For example, since the first moon landing in the 1960s, over 70 landing frames have been left on the moon. Another idea is to utilize things that are already on site or to build up new parts that we send there so that we can reuse or repair them.

RWTH: What are the next steps?

Milicevic Neumann: We are doing basic research, which means that we want to optimize the processes in our equipment, test them under different conditions and develop the right equipment for splitting regolith. We have never worked on Earth with such a large mixture of ten metals, and for this we are working with large companies and research institutes to find the optimal solution. Once the process and the equipment are optimized, we can send them into space and make further adjustments under real conditions. Only when we have mastered these processes and can develop sufficient oxygen can a human presence be established.

RWTH: What is your biggest dream in terms of your research?

Milicevic Neumann: The biggest dream would be to have a breakthrough in the process and see that it really works, that something useful is generated, and then of course to test the process on the moon. I would love for us to be able to learn something there and in turn transfer it to Earth and improve something here. That way we could connect Earth and space, and that would be a win-win situation.