Editorial Feature

Building New Frontiers with Martian Concrete

Scientists at the University of Manchester, UK, recently demonstrated how a novel concrete material using Martian soil and the blood of human astronauts as ingredients could pave the way for future colonization and infrastructure projects on other bodies in our solar system.

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Escaping Earth’s gravity – not to mention navigating space and landing on an extraterrestrial body – is extremely difficult. Because of this, it costs $2 million to send just one brick to Mars. This means that future colonization of anywhere not on Earth may be prohibitively expensive.

However, NASA is aiming to send a manned mission to the Red Planet in the 2030s in order to plan for future human habitats and potential cities on Mars in the future.

Developing advanced materials for construction in space is a key focus right now and is essential for success in these endeavors.

In-Situ Resource Utilization

Settlers have always adapted their construction methods to the resources available to them on the ground. For any future Martian colonists, transporting enough building materials from Earth will not be possible, so they will also need to use resources they can find on Mars to build anything.

This is called in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) and involves using Martian soil, loose rock, and sparse water deposits on the planet.

The primary Martian material identified for ISRU is inorganic rock and dust that covers the planet’s surface. This is known as regolith. There are also water deposits, minerals, and atmospheric gasses on Mars that could be used for ISRU.

Concrete on Mars

A researcher from the United States Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, US, recently proposed using water for Martian concrete in the journal Cement and Concrete Composites.

The paper shows that water can be produced on Mars from condensation out of the atmosphere or by mining ice deposits. This could be bound with local aggregates and plaster of paris to make concrete.

Concrete structures like these, said the author, would be buried 7-10 m below local regolith to protect occupants from cosmic and solar radiation, extreme temperature fluctuations, and deliquescent salts.

Novel mixing, casting, compacting, and curing techniques would be required for this application and for the alien conditions on Mars – low temperatures, low gravity, and low atmospheric pressure. The author argues that concrete is a good solution for dealing with these unique challenges.

Curdling Astronaut’s Blood for Concrete

Scientists at The University of Manchester, UK, recently developed a new space-based building material that they have named AstroCrete. This was made by combining regolith with a protein found in human blood.

In a study published in the journal Materials Today Bio, the researchers showed that this material was stronger than traditional concrete and could be used for construction in extra-terrestrial environments.

By binding regolith from Mars or the moon with a protein found in blood plasma, human serum albumin (HSA), researchers created a concrete with a compressive strength of 25 MPa. Concrete usually has strength of between 20 and 32 MPa. The team said that the addition of the blood protein improved regolith-based concrete’s strength by 300%.

Over 500 kg of AstroCrete could be produced by a crew of six astronauts over a two-year mission on Mars. The bonding mechanism of AstroCrete was found to be similar to the cohesion mechanism of spider silk. Blood proteins denature or “curdle” to form into extended structures in a supramolecular “beta-sheet” network.

This led Manchester’s Dr Aled Roberts, an author on the paper, to quip: “The concept is literally blood-curdling.”

Using the Sulfur that Makes Mars Red

An international team from Northwestern University in Illinois, US, and University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) in Vienna, Austria, explored using sulfur – the mineral that gives Mars its characteristic red color – to make Martian concrete. Mars is rich in sulfur, so using it as a construction material was a natural avenue of research for the team.

The concrete developed uses Martian sulfur and regolith for a comparable strength to conventional concrete. It also displayed fast curing, stability in low temperatures, and resistance to atmospheric acid and salt.

The researchers used three-point bending, compression tests, and splitting tests to analyze different ratios of sulfur to regolith for concrete. The optimal mix in their tests displayed an unconfined compressive strength of over 50 MPa, simulated using lattice discrete particle model (LDPM) software.

Could We Be Building in Space Soon?

NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have announced plans to resume manned exploration missions and establish permanent human habitats on the Moon and Mars by 2040. These habitats will be built using lunar and Martian in-situ resources to make space exploration more sustainable and cost-effective.

However, our understanding of using these resources for construction is still limited, hindering the development of Earth-independent habitats.

The study of Martian concrete has shown that it has the potential to be used as a structural material, with potentially greater strength than traditional concrete.

More from AZoBuild: Hot Topics and Future Forecasts in the Concrete Industry

References and Further Reading

Affordable housing in outer space: Scientists develop cosmic concrete from space dust and astronaut blood. (2021) [Online] The University of Manchester. Available at: https://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/affordable-housing-in-outer-space-scientists-develop-cosmic-concrete-from-space-dust-and-astronaut-blood/ (Accessed on 16 February 2023).

Naser, N.Z. (2019). Extraterrestrial construction materials. Materials Science. doi.org/10.1016/j.pmatsci.2019.100577.

---. (2019). Space-native construction materials for earth-independent and sustainable infrastructure. Acta Astronautica. doi.org/10.1016/j.actaastro.2018.12.014.

Reches, Y. (2019). Concrete on Mars: Options, challenges, and solutions for binder-based construction on the Red Planet. Cement and Concrete Composites. doi.org/10.1016/j.cemconcomp.2019.103349.

Roberts, A.D., et al (2021). Blood, sweat, and tears: extraterrestrial regolith biocomposites with in vivo binders. Materials Today Bio. doi.org/10.1016/j.mtbio.2021.100136.

Sumini, V., and C.T. Mueller (2017). Structural Challenges for Space Architecture. [Online] Structure. Available at: https://www.structuremag.org/?p=12389 (Accessed on 16 February 2023).

Troemner, M., and G. Cusatis (2019). Martian Material Sourcing Challenges Propel Earth Construction Opportunities. Matter. doi.org/10.1016/j.matt.2019.07.023.

Wan, L., et al (2016). A novel material for in situ construction on Mars: experiments and numerical simulations. Construction and Building Materials. doi.org/10.1016/j.conbuildmat.2016.05.046.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Ben Pilkington

Written by

Ben Pilkington

Ben Pilkington is a freelance writer who is interested in society and technology. He enjoys learning how the latest scientific developments can affect us and imagining what will be possible in the future. Since completing graduate studies at Oxford University in 2016, Ben has reported on developments in computer software, the UK technology industry, digital rights and privacy, industrial automation, IoT, AI, additive manufacturing, sustainability, and clean technology.

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