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A technique to enrich Moon minerals RESEARCH MEETS INDUSTRY

From start-ups to industry giants, every company that wants to stay competitive needs to be innovative. At the heart of innovation lies research. Partnerships between industry and research are a win-win: Companies get access to brilliant minds, while the scientists get to see their research have direct impact, plus setting them up for both a career in industry and academia.

In this article, we speak to Mechanical Engineer and PhD researcher Joshua Rasera, who as part of an FNR Industrial Fellowship collaboration between ispace Europe and Imperial College London is working on a technique to enrich materials found in the Lunar soil.

“It is great to know that I am developing something that will add value to ispace – and it is incredibly motivating to know that, one day, my research will end up on the Moon,” says Joshua Rasera, who started his PhD in September 2018, having previously worked at ispace Europe as both an intern and full-time engineer.

Finding a way to get resources in space

There are many questions that need to be answered, techniques that need to be invented, before space mining can actually become a concrete reality - for example finding out how the resources on the Moon can be utilised in a bid to cut down the amount of resources that would need to be transported from Earth to space for missions.

“This could be anything from basic life-support necessities, like water or oxygen, to more diverse materials for 3D printing, electronics fabrication, or power generation,” Josh explains.
“With respect to the Moon, every resource of interest would first need to be ‘mined’ in some way. The steps involved with mining on Earth are broken down into what is known as a flowsheet; these flowsheets cover everything from excavation and haulage through to the final refinement steps to produce a pure material.”

Innovating in a burgeoning field

Mainly based at Imperial College London, Josh works on beneficiation - a process that improves the economic value of the ore (A naturally occurring solid material from which a metal or valuable mineral can be extracted profitably).

Josh is developing a technique to enrich specific materials in the Lunar soil, in order to facilitate the production of resources of interest – minerals, glass created by ancient volcanoes, even water-ice crystals, found in the soil at the Moon’s poles.

A variety of innovative processes are being developed, to for example produce oxygen or capture water from the Lunar soil:

“Each of these techniques will have an optimal input feed that will maximise the efficiency of the oxygen/water production process. Mineral enrichment and feedstock* preparation are both highly under-researched areas in the space resource utilisation flowsheet, and offer excellent opportunities to innovate in this burgeoning field.”

*Raw material to supply or fuel a machine or industrial process.

From intern to PhD researcher

When ispace Europe opened their office in Luxembourg in 2017, Josh was among the first few people hired, and embarked on an internship in the framework of his Masters studies at the International Space University in France. Following the internship, he joined the company as a full-time engineer, taking on a variety of technical and non-technical responsibilities as the team grew.

As an intern, Josh had no intention of pursuing a PhD, however the internship provided him with a platform to gain a better understanding of ispace’s needs and goals. After starting as a full-time engineer and clarifying his own career goals and aspirations, Josh explains that he decided that the Industrial Fellowship programme was the right path to take:

“I thought that it would be an excellent opportunity for me to undertake a research project that would help ispace achieve their long-term vision, whilst helping me build my skillset and experience in the nascent space mining sector. After speaking with management both in Europe and Japan, I began contacting professors, fleshing out the specifics for the research project”.
“ispace management in both Europe and Japan recognised that as a company, we needed to start thinking about how we will achieve our resource utilisation vision for the Moon and were very supportive of my Industrial Fellowship proposal.
"The work that Carlos and I are able to do through this programme is setting the groundwork for the company that ispace will become in the future.”

Three steps

Julien Lamamy, Josh’s supervisor at ispace Europe, explains how Josh’s Industrial Fellowship, as well as those of fellow Industrial Fellows Carlos Espejel and Philippe Ludivig feed into ispace Europe’s goals:

“After we demonstrate our lunar lander and rover technologies and before we move to utilising lunar resources, there first needs to be a phase of exploration in the mining sense, that is the precise mapping of resources (Carlos). Then comes the rover navigation, which Philippe is working on, which will build a map of the Moon and localise the resources on that map.
“One then needs to process this new exploration data and evaluate the grade of the resources and the effort it takes to extract and utilise them (Carlos). Resource extraction and utilisation will start for the mines that are economically viable, and a key step of that process is the beneficiation – Josh’s key area of research . The FNR has enabled us to start thinking and preparing for these three steps.”

Passionately pushing frontiers of exploration

Even though Josh is mainly based in the UK, he is very much a part of the ispace Europe team, which he visits regularly, and shares palpable passion for the mission:

“Everyone at the company is not only incredibly passionate about their role, they also truly believe in the company’s aims and vision, and are all working towards a common goal. It is an amazing experience to be a part of such a passionate group of professionals working on technology that pushes the frontiers of exploration.”

“Working in collaboration with an industrial partner adds incredible value to what I do”

ispace is a start-up, and Josh explains that budgets are naturally earmarked for developing ispace’s core lander and rover technologies, as well as individual public-private partnership projects, and as such, schemes that support collaborations between research and industry can hugely benefit companies in achieving their goals:

“Programmes such as the Industrial Fellowship provide the company with a low-cost, low-risk, and high-impact opportunity to explore other avenues that they otherwise would maybe not be able to.”

Josh explains that one benefit for researchers in working with an industrial partner is seeing the direct impact of the work:

“I am a huge proponent of applied research, and so being able to work in collaboration with an industrial partner adds incredible value to what I do.
“It also keeps my research grounded in reality, as it is easy to become lost in the corridors of the Ivory Tower that is academia. I am doing exactly what I have always wanted and am so thankful to ispace and the FNR for providing me the opportunity to do what I love!”

More in this series

An autonomous lunar rover for space exploration - Philippe Ludivig (ispace Europe / SnT at University of Luxembourg)

A mine planning methodology for space - Carlos Espejel (ispace / University of New South Wales)

ABOUT JOSH RASERA

Joshua Rasera, an Italian/Canadian national, has a Bachelor of Applied Science, Mechanical Engineering from the University of Waterloo (Canada), as well as two Masters degrees: A Master of Applied Science, Mechanical Engineering from the University of Waterloo, followed by a Master of Science, Space Studies from the International Space University (France). Josh started as an intern at ispace Europe, in the framework of his studies at the International Space University, and joined the company as a full employee after the end of the internship. During his undergraduate studies, Josh completed several internships across a wide variety of industries, and has also worked as a full-time Process Engineer.

About Industrial Fellowships

The aim of the FNR's Industrial Fellowships programme (formerly AFR-PPP) is to foster the cooperation between Luxembourg based companies active in R&D and public research institutions in Luxembourg and/or abroad. The scheme awards PhD and Postdoc grants to researchers who carry out their PhD and/or postdoc training in collaboration with a company in Luxembourg. The scheme is open to all scientific domains, and to all researchers, regardless of their nationality. Collaborating companies must have a presence in Luxembourg.

About Mineral Processing Research at Imperial College London

The team of mineral processing researchers is led by Professor Jan Cilliers, Josh’s PhD supervisor at Imperial College London. The group has traditionally focused on studying the fundamental behaviour of mineral separations, linking this to industrial operation. Their work has been sponsored by large multi-national mining companies, particularly for their work on process optimisation. Prof Cilliers and Josh’s co-supervisor, Dr Kathryn Hadler, are now looking towards the future of mining, both on Earth and in space. They are building a new research group whose focus is on the design of particle separation systems that are applicable to space resource extraction, and to crossover technologies for terrestrial mining. Prof Cilliers has appointed Mr Stanley Starr, a former NASA employee with over 37 years’ experience in space missions and space resources, as an Honorary Senior Research Fellow. Josh explains that this new group will become world-leaders in mineral processing techniques for space applications, in addition to developing breakthrough technologies and approaches for terrestrial operations.

About ispace

ispace Europe S.A. is one of many companies that have set up shop in Luxembourg as a result of the SpaceResources.lu initiative. Founded in September 2010 by Takeshi Hakamada, ispace is a private lunar exploration company focused on developing micro-robotic systems to locate, characterise, extract, produce and deliver resources from the lunar surface to customers on the Moon and in cislunar space. In March 2017, ispace signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Luxembourg Government in the context of the SpaceResources.lu initiative, with a focus on developing miniaturised technology to discover, map, and utilise resources on the Moon.