Research Looks at “Growing” Mars Building Materials


A researcher from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College was recently awarded a grant to study a method for “growing” building materials on Mars.

“On Mars, we don't have human labor. So if we can grow construction materials automatically without human intervention, that would be a great idea,” Congrui Grace Jin, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the UNL College of Engineering, told reporters.

Earlier this month, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration awarded Jin a $175,000 NASA Innovation Advanced Concept (NIAC) grant. Now, she plans to look at using fungus paired with bacteria to create a crystal-forming compound, calcium carbonate.

This could bind with minerals readily found on Mars to form bricks, to then be assembled into different structures, Jin said. The fungus and bacteria can be transported in small quantities and then reportedly be grown on Mars.

“It can reproduce themselves; they can grow by themselves,” Jin said. “When the bricks have cracks, they heal themselves by generating the calcium carbonate.”

KETV reports that Jin has already completed some research, showing that this method could work on Earth. Initially, they worked with bacteria to heal cracks in concrete.

Jin notes that this method is more expensive than traditional Earth methods, but in space, it could reduce the load of shipping all of the materials from Earth to Mars.

According to the grant proposal, the technology could be useful not just on new planets, but could potentially aid challenges on Earth with military logistics and construction in remote, high-risk, and post-disaster environments. For example, the self-growing material could possibly be used to bond local waste materials to build shelters after natural or man-made disasters.

About the Grant

Earlier this month, NASA announced that it had selected experimental space technology concepts for initial study through the NIAC program. According to the release, the latest round of awards will provide $175,000 grants to 14 visionaries from nine states, with 10 of the selected researchers becoming first-time NIAC recipients.

NIAC, since 2011, has nurtured ideas like the recent awards that “sound like science fiction, but—if successful—just might be possible.” The program sits within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) and explores technically credible, early-stage aerospace concepts.

NIAC researchers, called fellows, then form an advanced, collaborative research community. This community investigates the physics of the concepts, roadmap necessary technology development, identify potential limitations, and look for transition opportunities to bring these concepts to reality.

“NASA dares to make the impossible possible. That’s only achievable because of the innovators, thinkers and doers who are helping us imagine and prepare for the future of space exploration,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

“The NIAC program helps give these forward-thinking scientists and engineers the tools and support they need to spur technology that will enable future NASA missions.”

The Phase I projects reportedly include innovative sensors and instruments, manufacturing techniques, power systems and more. However, it is noted that all NIAC studies are in the very early stages of conceptual development and are not considered official NASA missions. 

“These initial Phase I NIAC studies help NASA determine whether these futuristic ideas could set the stage for future space exploration capabilities and enable amazing new missions,” said Michael LaPointe, program executive for NIAC at NASA Headquarters.

Mars Dust for 3D Printing

Back in October, researchers from Washington State University shared that there is a potential use for Martian dust in 3D printing on Mars. One researcher noted that one kilogram (roughly 2.2 pounds) of payload costs $54,000 for a NASA space shuttle to put into Earth’s orbit. It is for this reason, among others, that researchers have been looking into how astronauts might be able to create items in space, or on planets.

According to a news release issued by the university, as little as 5% or as much as 100% of Martian regolith, a black powdery substance created from inorganic rock materials found on Mars, mixed with a titanium alloy could be enough to 3D print strong, high-performing tools or rocket parts in space.

While parts using 100% of the Martian dust were brittle and cracked easily, researchers said that the high-Martian materials could be utilized to create protective coatings for equipment from dust and radiation damage.

However, those using only 5% of Martian regolith mixed with titanium alloys proved to be much stronger.

For this recent study, the team used a powder-based 3D printer to mix the simulated Martian rock dust with a titanium alloy. Researchers noted that as part of the process, the materials were heated by laser to over 2,000 degrees Celsius (3,632 F).

From this stage, the melted mixture of Martian regolith-ceramic and metal material was poured onto a moving platform where it was used to create different sizes and shapes. Once cooled, the team then tested the tools for strength and durability.

While ceramic materials with higher quantities of Martian rock dust did not hold up, the team shared in their results that the mixture with 5% regolith exhibited better properties than the titanium alloy alone, which meant it could be used to make lighter-weight pieces that could still bear heavy loads.

In the future, the university hopes to yield better composites using different metals or 3D printing techniques.


Tagged categories: Bio-based materials; Building materials; Colleges and Universities; Good Technical Practice; Grants; NA; NASA; North America; Program/Project Management; Research and development

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