S&T moon metals research team receives NASA award

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On December 14, 2023

Ph.D. student Jacob Ortega works with Dr. Daoru Han in Missouri S&T’s plasma vacuum chamber. Photo by Michael Pierce/Missouri S&T.

Ph.D. student Jacob Ortega works with Dr. Daoru Han in Missouri S&T’s plasma vacuum chamber. Photo by Michael Pierce/Missouri S&T.

A multidisciplinary team of Missouri S&T students was one of seven finalists in NASA’s 2023 Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game-Changing Idea (BIG Idea) Challenge: Lunar Forge. 
 
The S&T team, led by Jacob Ortega, a Ph.D. student in aerospace engineering and Kummer Innovation and Entrepreneurship Doctoral Fellow from Vallejo, California, presented its research on producing aluminum on the moon last month in Cleveland. 
 
Although the team did not successfully produce aluminum before the final stage of the contest, the team was awarded NASA’s Edison Award, which is in reference to Thomas Edison’s quote: “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The lightbulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”  
 
Ortega says this award was to demonstrate that the team still made headway toward one day manufacturing moon metals with their processes even if they were not yet successful. 
 
“A few of the judges — NASA Glenn employees working in both terrestrial and lunar resources — acknowledged that we were trying to tackle a very difficult problem,” Ortega says. “They commended us for the attempt to solve it and passed along business cards for us keep in touch in case we had any questions or to update them when we finally produce aluminum.” 
 
The S&T moon metal work began in fall 2022, when the team submitted a proposal to NASA for the contest. In spring 2023, NASA announced S&T as a finalist and provided funding for the team’s research efforts to continue. 
 
S&T’s project was titled “Lunar In-Situ Aluminum Production Through Molten Salt Electrolysis” and worked with anorthite, a material in large supply on the moon that contains aluminum. 
 
The group researched methods for using a type of electrolysis to reduce the aluminum oxide in the anorthite into aluminum metal.  
 
Ortega says his work on this issue is not over, as it could one day make a significant difference in future developments on the moon. 
 
Other members of the S&T team included:  

  • Grant Baer, a junior in aerospace engineering from Webb City, Missouri. 
  • Ryan Baur, a junior in aerospace engineering from De Soto, Missouri. 
  • Douglas Dawkins, a senior in mechanical engineering from Wentzville, Missouri. 
  • Nicholas Graham, a sophomore in aerospace engineering from Parker, Texas. 
  • Easton Ingram, a senior in mechanical engineering from Salem, Missouri.  
  • Mercedes Lane, a senior in geology and geophysics from Berea, Kentucky.  
  • Giovanna Lenza, a junior in aerospace engineering from Chesterfield, Missouri. 
  • Alexander Newby, a junior in aerospace engineering from St. Peters, Missouri.  
  • Keaton Painter, a junior in mechanical engineering from Morrisville, Missouri. 
  • Mason Phillips, a senior in mechanical engineering from Webb City, Missouri. 
  • Alexander Schumacher, a sophomore in engineering management from St. Louis 
  • Matthew Sherman, a sophomore in metallurgical engineering from Camdenton, Missouri. 

S&T faculty advisors for the contest included: 

  • Dr. Daoru Han, associate professor of aerospace engineering. 
  • Dr. David Bayless, chair and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.  
  • Dr. Fateme Rezaei, Doshi Professor of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering.  
  • Dr. William Schonberg, professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering.  
  • Dr. Jeffrey Smith, professor of materials science and engineering.  
  • Dr. Daniel Stutts, associate professor of mechanical engineering. 

For more information about S&T’s mechanical and aerospace engineering programs, visit mae.mst.edu.

More about Missouri S&T

Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) is a STEM-focused research university of over 7,000 students located in Rolla, Missouri. Part of the four-campus University of Missouri System, Missouri S&T offers over 100 degrees in 40 areas of study and is among the nation’s top public universities for salary impact, according to the Wall Street Journal. For more information about Missouri S&T, visit www.mst.edu.

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On December 14, 2023.

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