This Israeli company not only plans to create oxygen for space exploration out of lunar regolith, but can help the steel industry, too.
No humans have been on the moon since the Apollo missions ended in 1972, but 50 years later plans are now in place to go back — not just to plant a flag and return, but to establish a presence.
Inspiring? Yes, but also daunting. Staying on another celestial body for a prolonged period of time presents a host of challenges, perhaps chief of which is this: how can we ensure new lunar camps have all the resources they need?
This is the problem that Helios, an Israel-based startup backed by renewable energy company Doral’s CVC unit, Doral Energy-Tech Ventures (Doral Tech), is looking to help solve.
For space colonies, the most sought-after resource by far will be oxygen, not just to breathe — which is an important but relatively small part of it — but to burn the fuel needed to ferry people and cargo to and from Earth.
“Oxygen is going to be the king of materials in space, at least in the foreseeable future,” Helios chief executive Jonathan Geifman told Global Corporate Venturing.
“If we want to make this sustainable in the long run, we must at least be able to source oxygen outside what we call Earth gravity.”
The problem is a compounding one and it has a name: the Tyranny of the Rocket equation. A rocket needs a lot of fuel and oxygen to launch a spacecraft and its contents into space. But oxygen is itself incredibly heavy. The more of it you add, the more oxygen and fuel you need to launch.
The numbers add up quickly, and given that the cost of hauling things to space comes to around $1m per kilogramme, the economics of colonising extraterrestrial land can spiral out of control.
“We have an indefinite amount of oxygen available to us [on Earth], so we don’t tend to consider that, for example, when you burn one kilogramme of methane, it pulls from the air around four kilogrammes of oxygen,” says Geifman.
To illustrate the point, says Geifman, SpaceX’s Starship – the massive spacecraft set to take astronauts to the moon and, at some point, to Mars – will weigh roughly 1,400 tons fully loaded, and nearly 1,000 tons of that will just be oxygen.
In space, the most accessible oxygen can be found on lunar soil, where — like on Earth — it is bound to other elements like iron, silicon, calcium, titanium and silicon, in a mix known as regolith. Not only would Helios’ technology separate the oxygen from the rest of those minerals, but would also make use of the minerals for other things, too.
Currently, Helios’ technology is set to take off on three lunar missions over the next three years to pilot at small scale, with a view to demonstrate a pilot at full scale in around a decade.
Bringing in investors
Convincing potential investors of putting their money behind a space-focused company was no mean feat, but the winds were at Helios’ back. Space isn’t a pipe dream anymore — a child born today will still be a toddler when humans are moon-bound again.
“This whole concept is still pretty new to most, and it’s still pretty scary and sounds like sci-fi, but it is three years from now. We’ll have a lunar base and suddenly the fact that [the technology is] needed will be trivial,” says Geifman.
Some early associations helped validate Helios’ vision, including that of NASA’s former space resources lead joining the company as a partner and advisor in the early days. The team also managed to create some valuable IP in their lab and got some funding from the Israeli Space Agency, which is itself supporting the development, assembly and production of the lunar payloads Helios will be sending to the moon.
It wasn’t all about space, though. Helios is one of a long line of organisations whose development of technology for space ended up having massive potential for terrestrial application, in this case making iron — the main ingredient in the ever-hungry steel industry — using far less energy and producing no direct emissions.
Around a year ago, the company had a breakthrough that quickly turned into a huge opportunity. Researching how to get oxygen from regolith, Helios realised the process can also remove oxygen from iron ore — producing iron needed for processes like steel-making — without the use of carbon.
Extracting oxygen from iron is not new — humans have been doing it for millennia in blast furnaces — but doing so without any direct emissions is uncharted territory. Compared to other low-carbon alternatives for the steel industry, such as green hydrogen, the energy use for the Helios furnace is far lower and cheaper.
Today, says Geifman, the company is in talks with partners representing roughly 15% of the global steel sector.
“To be honest, we were sure that we’re missing something because it’s kind of crazy to think that someone can come up with a novel approach to produce iron,” he says.
“We reduced the direct emissions from the process to zero, because we don’t use carbon. We reduced the energy consumption of the process, in comparison to how it is being produced today, up to 50% and, according to what we’ve managed to calculate at this point, it seems that we’re going to reduce the production cost quite significantly — by up to 20%. For us, this is like the holy grail of solutions for this industry.”
What the Helios team realised, says Geifman, was that many of the problems we face on Earth, particularly in terms of sustainability, can be solved by trying to figure out parallel solutions in lunar or Martian environments.
He says: “This is something that naturally happens because the environment on the moon is so extreme, so unforgiving, that you really cannot waste anything — you can’t afford to do it. Everything you use, you need to utilise, you need to find how you’re going to reclaim it.”
The benefit of corporate backers
The potential uses by the steel industry helped bring in investors, as it gave them a more tangible, and potentially lucrative, proposition.
Doral Tech co-led a $6m seed round for Helios’ venture capital firm At One Ventures, following the startup’s earlier pre-seed raises sized at few hundred-thousand dollars and government grants. It is not the only corporate backer in Helios’ corner, which also counts a top-five mining company as a shareholder. Other investors include venture capital firm Metaplanet.
With the funding, Helios has been able to expand its team and acquire equipment for its R&D activities. Most of the money from the seed round will be used for the iron-making processes on Earth.
“When I introduce Helios to other investors, I usually start by saying: ‘This story is unique,’” said Doral Energy-Tech Ventures unit chief Roee Furman on an episode of the Global Venturing Review podcast.
“When you walk in their offices and the labs, you feel the vibe, you feel the Israeli entrepreneurial spirit at its best. We really love the team, we really like the technology. We do believe that there is a lot of room [for Helios’ technology] on Earth, and then later on an endless story towards the moon.”
“Every investor is a bit biased on its portfolio, but this is a really special one.”
In this case, having a corporate backer has been beneficial for the startup. Far from just bringing in money, Geifman credits Doral with giving Helios access to a wide network and helping make some crucial introductions even before becoming shareholders.
“Doral so far have been very important to us in the sense of opening doors and making the right introductions. It’s a big public company here in Israel that is well networked in that realm — it has access to big mining companies and big players in these industries.
Even before they invested, they already showed their worth. We already had some major introductions through them while they were doing the due diligence.”
The same is true of Helios’ other major corporate investor, an unnamed mining company that is among the largest in the world. That investor is giving Helios access to know-how and indefinite amounts of raw materials for testing its technology.
It can also help to have a prominent company on your side to help navigate the geopolitical, national security and regulatory hurdles that are an inevitable part of extracting any finite resource. Big corporate investors can advise on how to operate across multiple geographies, each with its own rules, and help figure out where Helios can best integrate its technology and what models will work.
Being under these corporate, multinational and governmental umbrellas also goes a long way to mitigate the risks of business on the wild west that is the moon. Concerns about intellectual property infringement may be easier to solve than people think, says Geifman — as companies are still registered on Earth and it wouldn’t be too different from taking action against a company registered in a different country. For other eventualities, such as another power commandeering the site, no real recourse exists in the absence of policing or military presence, so having powerful public and private actors in your corner counts for a lot.