Want To Build A City On Mars? Martian Soil Could Be All You Need.

These days, the question of people colonizing Mars is less of an "if," than a "when." But while many have daydreamed about pioneering a new civilization (or perhaps even drafted their packing list!), it's likely that comparatively few people have considered exactly what it would take to build it from the ground up. Recently, a team of scientists and engineers at the University of California, San Diego developed a substance they've dubbed Martian soil simulant to better understand the potential for construction on Mars. After extensive experimentation, they stumbled on a way to turn it into super-strong bricks—no bonding agents, water, or kilns necessary!

Researchers compacted Mars simulant under pressure in a cylindrical, flexible rubber tube. This is what the result of the experiment looked like before it was cut into bricks.

Not Just Another Brick in the Wall

On Earth, bricks are made using several methods. The most traditional is taking a mixture of clay and shale and firing it in a kiln at 2,000º F. This process chemically alters the substance, fusing the minerals of the ingredients into one solid, super-strong material. Concrete bricks are another popular form. They're made by combining concrete with other ingredients, including a cement paste for bonding. While increasingly common, experts in the brick industry argue they don't last as long as the clay/shale version.

It was this second method of brickmaking that first inspired the team at University of California, San Diego. Led by materials scientist and engineer Dr. Yu Qiao, the group had previously developed a "space paste" that astronauts could take with them and potentially combine with lunar soil to make bricks on the moon. The team then began combining the paste with their Martian soil simulant, reducing the amount used with each batch until they realized that, with the right amount of pressure, an outside bonding agent wasn't necessary at all. They hypothesized that the iron oxide that gives Mars its ruddy hue might naturally hold other particles together during the brick-making process. Further research proved they were very, very correct: the no-bake Martian soil bricks were stronger than concrete reinforced with steel.

A Good Foundation

So when do we start building? Hold your alien horses. Scientists still need to do more research on bricks made of pure Martian soil simulant: we don't know, for example, whether they're strong enough to withstand a wide variety of environmental conditions, or whether we can scale the production process for the construction of full-sized buildings. Still, many of Dr. Qiao's colleagues say his team's work paves the way. As John Rask, a research scientist at NASA, told The New York Times, "The paper is an interesting step in the right direction of development of building material for future explorers."

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Written by Jamie Ludwig May 22, 2017

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