NASA has selected a UK company to provide technology that could generate oxygen from Moon rock to help fuel a lunar return vehicle, writes Rob Coppinger.

London-based British Titanium, which has developed an electrolytic process that can produce oxygen from titanium dioxide, has secured a $14 million contract from the US space agency

Moon rock consists of titanium iron oxide, with oxygen representing 31% of its mass. The process, originally developed at the University of Cambridge by a postdoctoral researcher, uses an electrolytic cell operating below 900¡C (1,650¡F), anodising oxygen in metal oxides. The oxygen is released as a gas at the anode and the cell's waste by-product is ferrite titanium, which is used in structural steel production.

British Titanium was one of only two non-US companies chosen from 485 proposals for President George Bush's Vision for Space Exploration.

The other is French rocket engine company Snecma Propulsion Solide. The 70 submissions, selected at the end of November, will be funded with a total of $1 billion until 2009.

British Titanium chief executive James Hamilton says the company is no stranger to US government institutions: "We have been supported for the last seven years by two institutions - the US Navy and the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency [DARPA]. DARPA has its affordable titanium programme."

Hamilton is confident that British Titanium's process, operating on the Moon, will provide oxygen more cheaply than the current $1,600 per pound (0.45kg) that NASA estimates it will cost to transport the gas to the lunar surface.

Source: Flight International