AGH students are building a production line that can be operated on Mars

The photo shows members of the Nucleus research group. Two men are holding the AGH flag. When viewed from above, the flag consists of green, black and red stripes. There is a white AGH inscription on the black stripe. At the bottom, the red stripe has the inscription University of Science and Technology in Cracov. Looking from the left, a man and a woman are kneeling under the flag.

Members of the project, photo by Nucleus research group

The students of Nucleus research group now are working on a production line that is to be operated on Mars. The production line aims at delivering basalt bars that would be four times more resistant to stretching and eight times lighter than the steel ones. The production line is to be energy-saving and resistant to dust storms, and for the production of basalt bars the raw material available on Mars will be used. The research group Nucleus has been awarded a Rector’s Grant for their project.

If Elon Musk’s predictions come true, even in this decade the humanity may become an interplanetary civilisation. The owner of SpaceX, a company leading in development of space technologies announces that the first in the history manned mission to Mars will be launched in 2026. NASA aims are similarly high and it plans its crewed flights to the Red Planet at the early 30’s. Apart from exploration of Mars, its colonisation comes into play as a plan that may appear to be more or less extended in time. We are talking not only about creating a base operated on a regular basis but a self-sufficient city. The latter Musk would like to build by 2050.

However, there are some hurdles on the path of putting the bold plans into effect. One of them is the necessity of delivering to the Martian construction site raw materials and construction components. If there were even drives that would allow for such operation, its costs would be enormous. Therefore, it would be reasonable to conduct the construction works by using materials that can be found on the Red Planet. Thus, the scientists came up with the ideas to build tools out of a mix of Martian regolith and chitin, the polymers most commonly found in nature. The chitin is supposed to be obtained from insects bred for this purpose which can also serve as food for spacemen.

The students of the research group – Nuclesus from the Faculty of Materials Science and Ceramics, that is, Maciej Skorupski (chair of  Nucleus), Marcelina Stasik, Rafał Twaróg, Jan Stawiarski, Michał Szkółka and Artur Polaczek follow that trend. The research group works under the guidance of  Piotr Szatkowski, DSc from the Department of Biomaterials and Composites. As part of the project "Development of basalt-based polymer composites for use as construction materials on Mars”, the research group is building an autonomous production line that in the Martian conditions might produce bars that would be four times more resistant to stretching and eighth times lighter than the steel ones.

How to melt Martian basalts

Basalt is a volcanic rock the existence of which has been confirmed on Mars. When melted in the temperature of 1400 degrees of Celsius, fibres are obtained, which can be used for the reinforcement of construction composite materials. Although the chemical composition of the Martian rock slightly differs from the encountered on Earth, it shouldn’t be a serious problem:

– Also on Earth basalt varies in its composition depending on the deposit. Changes in terms of minor percentage deviations of one of the components may be a decisive factor showing that fibre production based on basalt will not be profitable. Basalt would require refining and enrichment with components it does not hold in its composition or components that enhance its final properties – Piotr Szatkowski, DSc explains. The scientist adds that on Mars  basalt rocks due to the conditions they were formed in may also differ in certain locations. A great impact on that may have movements of the planets or meteorites hitting the ground as they transfer various types of elements. – Maybe it will be rocks equipped with better properties? – he wonders.

Although basalt fibres are highly resistant to stretching, they are sufficiently flexible to be tied in knots. Therefore, such fibres must be bound with such material that will ensure a constant cross-section in the composite structure and transfer the stresses generated when the cross-section works on the fibres. In this case, it is polymer resin. Such type composites are created with the employment of a pultrusion process, that is, pushing fibres soaked with resin through an oven where it is cured. Although the technology is known since the middle of the previous century, the students are working on solutions that will allow its implementation on Mars.

The image shows a range of temperatures on Mars and Earth

The range of temperatures on Earth and Mars

Innovative production line

The project members admit that at the present stage they are not able to build a complete technological line that could be easily transferred from the university directly to Mars. Hence, they divided the task into sections and now they are concentrating only on the pultrusion line.

– For the time being, some of the parts we plan to be implemented into the technological line only theoretically, e.g., possibility of producing bars directly from the Martian rocks. We could grind them and melt to get the fibre from which we would right away produce the bars – Maciej Skorupski explains. He adds that another innovation is the recovery of heat from the hot basalt fibres just after melting into the heating element. It will be crucial on the Red Planet since the production of energy will be extremely difficult and expensive there.

Image showing a pultrusion line scheme. Seen from left to right, the scheme shows carbon fiber spools, a resin pool, and an oven. The image was provided by the Nucleus research group.

Pultrusion line scheme

The research group envisaged in the project also other factors that may have impact on maintaining the production on Mars. The production line, which is practically almost completed, is protected against adverse effects of dust storms commonly encountered on the Red Planet. The latter may occur locally but frequently they have spread out through the entire surface of the planet. If the borne dust contaminated the resin, the composite could lose its desired mechanical properties. When it comes to the resin, works are being conducted to enrich it with adequate modifiers, which would have a positive impact on the material resistance to the specific Martian conditions. Apart from the aforementioned dust storms, it is also the temperature which is usually minus a few dozen degrees and often significantly changes.

The process mastered and what’s next?

To start an effective production it is not sufficient to develop expected parameters of the material and build a production line, not only far away on Mars but also on Earth. Something else is needed for that.

– Except the product itself, it is salient to describe and master the process in order to be time and energy saving. Each and every machine is different. We need to learn its parameters, in other words, how susceptible it is for various changes – Marcelina Stasik explains. Piotr Szatkowski, DSc, adds that: – We want to control everything. If a running meter of a bar requires a specific amount of energy, it should be given said specific amount and nothing more. The ideas is to correlate all properties, that is, quality with energy, temperature of polarisation and repeatability.

Will the futuristic visions of Mars colonisation come true, and the equipment as the one being developed by the students will be operated on the Red Planet? Even if not, the paths of science show that the solution initially designed for other purposes sometimes can find completely different application over time. The supervisor of the project indicates that the carbon fibre which used to be a material available only for the army aviation industry and space industry now it is a component of tennis rackets that are ready to be grabbed in any shop.

– At the end of the year we plan to write an interesting paper about it, and to present the bars  intended to transfer stresses in structures on Mars! – the Nucleus members declare.

The graphic materials employed in the article contents developed by Nucleus research group.