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Students cook up test concrete for Mars

Mars_Matt Brabazon_Jess
OVEN-BAKED: UC engineering student Matt Brabazon heats ground rock to 670 degrees Celsius ready for making Mars-substitute concrete. Photo: Jess Pullar.

By Jess Pullar, reporting for the Christchurch Mail

University of Canterbury students are crushing and heating rocks to test whether it is possible to make concrete on Mars.

Matt Brabazon and Shaun Molloy’s study, titled ‘Spacecrete II: The Wrath of Serpentine’, aims to determine whether a concrete substitute can be made on Mars using rocks known to be present on the red planet.

“So if we want to make a space station on Mars, or move to Mars for whatever reason, then we can,” said Molloy.

The Civil Engineering honours students are grinding serpentine, a rock-type found on Mars, then crushing and heating it at 670degC to break it into the main constituents of cement, magnesium and silica.

Molloy said the pair had to find a small shed in a quiet corner of the university’s campus to grind the rock after fielding too many complaints about the noise they were making.

“We had to find a small location for a big obnoxious grinder.”

The pair aims to make several batches of concrete to test different mixes of serpentine and pumice, and will pressure test the strength of the resulting concrete blocks at 7 days, 28 days and 90 days.

Science writer and Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand publicity officer Haritina Mogosanu, who has visited the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, USA, said the research could prove beneficial for space exploration.

If scientists were able to reach Mars in the future they would need protection from radiation, so if there was a way to create buildings with local materials “that would be helpful,” she said.

Other honours students who attempted the same experiment last year were unsuccessful, but Molloy said he and Brabazon had a better chance of getting a positive result.

“Last year they were doing a similar thing but their particle sizes were nowhere near as small as ours. The idea is that if we grind it down small enough it will increase the reactivity enough to get us good concrete.”

There is a catch. Even if the pair proves that it is possible to make concrete, any human expedition hoping to replicate the process will need to take a pressurised oven to Mars to cook the ‘spacecrete’.