With plans to visit and later even potentially colonize Mars well underway, scientists and engineers around the world are working on viable solutions to issues regarding the establishment of a permanent base.
The question of building materials is a crucial one, as adding additional weight to the payload would pose further challenges to the already complicated project.
Luckily, progress on that front is not lacking – recently, a group of engineers at the University of California, San Diego had developed a simple, no-bake technique for making bricks from simulated Martian regolith (soil), used by researchers to study dust mitigation of transportation equipment, advanced life support systems and in-situ resource utilization.
“The people who will go to Mars will be incredibly brave. They will be pioneers. And I would be honoured to be their brick maker,” said Yu Qiao, a professor of structural engineering at UC, San Diego and the study’s lead author.
The bricks do not require the use of a high-power kiln or complex chemical substances to turn organic compounds found on Mars into binding polymers.
In fact, the discovery was made during attempts to reduce the amount of polymers necessary to shape the faux-Martian soil into bricks, which resulted in the realisation that none was required after all.
To make the bricks, researchers scooped the soil into a flexible cylindrical rubber tube encased in a steel mould and applied pressure that’s equivalent to someone dropping a 4.5 kg hammer from a height of one metre. No additives, heat or baking were required, as iron oxide, responsible for giving Martian soil its signature reddish hue, acts as a capable binding agent.
Furthermore, testing revealed that even without rebar the “Martian bricks” are stronger than steel-reinforced concrete.
According to Professor Qiao, bricks made in a similar fashion might also be compatible with additive manufacturing, meaning that astronauts could lay down a layer of soil, compact it, and repeat the process as necessary until the required structure is completed.
Alas, glossy, futuristic and impossibly shaped surfaces, imagined in works of science fiction, might have to wait, but as long as these lowly reddish bricks get the job done – no one’s complaining.