A goal of space exploration is in-situ resource utilization, bringing very little from Earth and using what you might find on the moon, planet, or asteroid that you are visiting. Plenty of researchers are trying to work out how to craft materials on Mars and a new study has found a way to create a titanium alloy that employs martian regolith, the soil of the Red Planet.
As reported in the International Journal of Applied Ceramic Technology, the team used the regolith by itself to create ceramics and also mixed it with a Titanium-aluminum-vanadium alloy. This alloy is known for its strength and corrosion resistance and the team was very interested in seeing if adding a simulated Martian soil to it would improve things or not.
Creating ceramics of 100 percent regolith was not exactly successful. They tend to crack when they cool down, and while not useful as a building material, can be employed as a coating that offers protection from oxidation (rust) and maybe even dampens radiation. Mars has no magnetic field, so there’s less protection from the solar wind and cosmic rays. This actually creates some unique aurorae on Mars.
But regolith can be used to make a pretty sturdy material. When a small fraction of the regolith (5 percent) was mixed with the titanium alloy, the team discovered that it drastically improved the properties of the material and made it much lighter.
"It gives you a better, higher strength and hardness material, so that can perform significantly better in some applications," corresponding author Amit Bandyopadhyay, from Washington State University, said in a statement.
The team created a 3D printed mix by melting the alloy to over 2,000°C (3,632°F) and adding the simulated soil. The mixture then flowed onto a moving platform that allowed the researchers to print objects of specific size and shape.
The approach still requires a lot of material that needs to be brought over from Earth, but as the team says, it is a start. Future work might be able to create even better composite materials and employ more efficient 3D printing techniques.
"This establishes that it is possible, and maybe we should think in this direction because it's not just making plastic parts which are weak but metal-ceramic composite parts which are strong and can be used for any kind of structural parts," Bandyopadhyay added.
This is not the only approach to using Martian regolith. Other researchers have worked out how to mix it with blood or urine to make sturdy bricks.