Poo-igloos and Dropping a Few Bricks on Mars

In order for humans to really start colonizing throughout the solar system, we’ll need to be able to build a wide range of buildings and structures. And, Andy Weir’s book (and subsequent Hollywood adaption) The Martian act as a cautionary thought experiment on how we may need those structures to be extremely durable. The problem is that construction materials are not just heavy, they’re very heavy.

So what’s the solution? Well, I expect we’ll have to do things a little old-school, we’ll have to use the materials that are readily available near the landing zone. Just looking at Mars, you might wonder what the hell could possibly be usable on a barren, red world? Well, iron-rich soil. Lots and lots of red soil.

In biologist John Baker’s book Race, he described the ability to work with stone or brick as one of the fundamental aspects of civilization. If that is the case, then we are one step closer to building a civilization on Mars.

On Earth, Humans have used bricks of varying types for thousands of years. Some of the most primitive were simply lumps of mud baked or set to cure in hot sun. Today, bricks are often made using clay and shale, then they are fired, at which point the two main ingredients fuse. Sometimes additives like polymers are added into the mix to help the materials bond with less heat. Whether making adobe or clay brick, though, heat has almost always been a major component to making strong, durable bricks.

However, on Mars, the ability to bake these bricks might not be available or it might be too energy intensive.

Researchers at the University of California at San Diego believe they have found a way to make incredibly strong bricks out of Martian soil without massive amounts of heat or polymer additives. Potential future Martian colonists will just have to press it really hard. 

That’s sort of an oversimplification. Researchers Brian Chow, Tzehan Chen, Ying Zhong & Yu Qiao have found that they could create very strong bricks out of a simulated Martian soil with just pressure. The trick was getting the iron oxide to fuse under the pressure, acting as an extremely strong bonding agent. The resulting bricks had “flexural strengths exceeding that of typical steel-reinforced concrete.”

But what does this mean?

The ability to build structures on Mars (or the Moon for that matter) is absolutely essential to humanity’s long-term residence there. The problem has been that we simply cannot move everything we would need from Earth to Mars. Being able to build using Martian-made bricks solves a large part of the problem.

As far as civilization basics go, bricks are great. The only issue is that they would need to be laid by hand or by a robot. The robot makes things easy enough, but I have to think there’s an even easier, more dynamic way to build permanent, highly customizable structures. Baker may not have specifically mentioned it, but I have to think that working with concrete part of “civilization” too. 

Might it actually be better if we can use a large 3-D printer that simply pours Martian concrete out in the shape of whatever building the colony wants or needs? At the very least it’s a second option. Well, good news! A recent European Space Agency test project showed that by mixing (simulated) Martian soil with phosphoric acid, a concrete could be made that could then be extruded into various structures and shapes.

One minor issue, though… Being that the dirt on Mars is a reddish-brown, the bricks and miniature sample buildings just kind of look like decorative piles of poop.But who knows, maybe the colonists will take something to color the Martian concrete, you know, for a little color? They’ll probably want a little bit of color, given that EVERYTHING is red. Then again, maybe they won’t mind living in poo-igloos. Personally, I could probably overlook that social stigma, given the exclusivity of the neighborhood.

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