Building on the Red Planet Just Got Easier With This New Technique

Engineers have now discovered a way in which to simulate Mars soil and pack it together into a solid brick-like material that should be sufficient for building on the red planet.  They’ve also managed to do all this without needing any additional ingredients to hold it all together too. This could mean that Mars soil is, in fact, perfect for building structures on after all.

The way it was discovered was by engineers using a high-pressure hammer to smash together Mars soil simulant. This material is a collection of rocks found on Earth that have the same chemical composition as soil found on Mars as well as a similar size and shape too. The engineers found that the soil would form easily into tiny stiff blocks once the correct amount of pressure had been applied, making them stronger than ever.

Photo by David Baillot, materials processed by Brian J. Chow and Yu Qiao

There’s a special chemical ingredient that’s in the simulated Martian soil that acts a binder, giving the soil strength hen compacted. But, it’s still simulated at the end of the day, and until it’s tried on the real thing, we still need to be a little wary.  Yu Qiao is a structural engineer at the University of California, San Diego and lead researcher on a NASA-funded study about this technique.  Before taking on this study, Qiao and his team had been looking at ways in which they could simulate lunar soil into building material.  But lunar soil needs a binder to make it stick together, unlike Mars soil, and that resource needs to come from Earth.  So the idea was to not construct anything using materials that used 15 percent or more binder.  The team achieved much better than that and got the binder content down to just 3 percent.

The Martian soil bonded by iron oxide. Photo by Brian J. Chow and Yu Qiao

But then NASA decided in 2010 to switch its focus to Mars instead of the Moon so the team had to adapt. “Our initial though was: let’s borrow the success of lunar soil and see if it works on Martian soil,” said Qiao. So, the team applied the same technique and found that it worked great. “Then one day, I told my research assistant, let’s just compact the soil simulant itself.  And it still worked,” said Qiao.

Moving forward, Qiao would like to see Mars soil being used to build landing pads or habitats on the red planet and says the best way to do it is through additive manufacturing – a process similar to 3D printing. Even so, these bricks aren’t the answer to everything and there are still many other hurdles we need to get over before we can begin colonizing on Mars.  Bit, it’s a good leap forward nonetheless.

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