PISCES Embarks on Lunar Concrete Development Project

Artist rendering of 3-D printed structures on the moon.  (Credit:  Behnaz Farahi and Connor Wingfield)
Artist rendering of 3-D printed structures on the moon. (Credit: Behnaz Farahi and Connor Wingfield)

HILO, Hawaii (PISCES PR) — Hawaii lawmakers passed a Resolution April 15th supporting PISCES and NASA-partnered projects that involve using lava rock, or basalt, as construction material for use on Earth and in outer space.

One of these projects calls for developing ‘lunar concrete’ using basalt. This technology – also known as “basaltic concrete” – could potentially make Hawaii ‘greener’ by reducing the amount of concrete the Aloha State imports from the mainland, as well as creating jobs in manufacturing and technology at home.

Traditional concrete is typically a mix of gravel, sand, and water, with cement binding everything together. To produce lunar concrete, PISCES is challenged with finding the most effective binding agent that would ‘glue’ the basalt together. The goal is to develop locally-produced concrete to build structures like roads and sidewalks.

PISCES is working with the Hawaii County Department of Research and Development and Department of Public Works to lay prototype slabs of this new concrete in a section of sidewalk on the Big Island. Each slab will consist of a different binding agent, and will be monitored over the course of a year to see which slab holds up the best. The target date for the installation of the ‘lunar sidewalk’ is set for August – the exact location has yet to be determined.

A robotic 3D printer that can build a home in one day. This technology is called Contour Crafting and was invented by Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis of CRAFT, which is a research center at USC with which PISCES has an MOU. (Credit: CRAFT)
A robotic 3D printer that can build a home in one day. This technology is called Contour Crafting and was invented by Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis of CRAFT, which is a research center at USC with which PISCES has an MOU. (Credit: CRAFT)

The second PISCES-NASA project involves 3D printing on a construction scale using basalt. Here on Earth, 3-D printers are already building houses using recycled materials. In space, however, blasting construction materials via a rocket is too costly. Basalt could be the key to building infrastructure in space using robots. Because Hawaii’s basalt is so similar to the regolith found on Mars and the Moon, it could be used to 3D print shelters, landing pads, and tools ‘in-situ’ – or on-site- on other planets.

Due to the exciting potential of such technology, PISCES is one of four partners chosen by NASA to work on a project involving robotic-enabled construction. Hawaii lawmakers – through Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 83 – are backing this initiative. Under the proposed plans, PISCES and NASA would work together to 3D print a landing pad, a curved wall, and a dome-shaped structure in Hawaii using basalt. The first phase of the project could begin as early as October and continue for three years.

  • Malatrope

    Water may limit the application of this on the moon. Using a high-power laser to sinter the regolith might be a better solution.

  • Maybe an electron beam system would be even better than a laser. Those seem to be able to get more power on target, which results in faster build rates.

  • Malatrope

    I agree, and works perfectly well in the vacuum of the moon.

  • DougSpace

    3D is cool and all but will the binder mass, risk of clogging etc cost more and have greater risk than an inflatable habitat?

  • Kapitalist
  • Christopher James Huff

    Electron beams would probably be more efficient than lasers, but might have issues dealing with non-conductive regolith. Maybe some kind of dusty plasma system can be used to both deliver and heat dielectric materials…

  • windbourne

    What is wrong with both?
    The inflatable is great to get us started. BUT, I can see loads of reasons to come up with hard habitats as well (though with the moon quakes, I have to wonder about that).

  • DougSpace

    It’s important that we clarify that the first habitats should be inflatable because they are low mass and are very easily assembled.
    Do you care to clarify some of your reasons to have hard habitats?

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Thick walls of in situ materials for radiation and micro-meteorite shielding?.

  • DougSpace

    http://digitalvideo.8m.net/Bigelow/NEW/lunarbase.jpg
    This picture shows a Bigelow inflatable with regolith (lunar dirt) covering in end-to-end sand bags. This would provide both radiation and micrometeorite shielding.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I would not claim to know what depth of regolith would be required to make a hab completely safe from exposure and reasonably small bombardment, though I was naively assuming a metre or two. As a stop-gap first cut measure, the sand-bags covering inflatables may well suffice. However, I suspect that long-term structures may have to more…structural. I suspect that excavation will be a bigger problem, and better solution, than actual structure. It is unlikely that any in situ “concrete” will be relied upon as air tight, so it’s more a problem of how best and most easily to “bury” structural habs.

  • windbourne

    I suspect that building a place COULD be easier and MUCH cheaper than building an inflatable here, transporting it there, and then covering it up there.
    I am not saying that it will be cheaper/better. Just suspect.

    I will say that if we get this going, I wonder if it would not be better at building a wall on the end of a lava tube? IOW, lets take advantage of caves that exists on the moon (and mars).

  • windbourne

    Actually, I think that as building a wall in a cave that these could be ideal. There are lava tubes up there that have been fairly well shook up over the eons and should be fairly sound. Just need to block one or two walls.

  • DougSpace

    ” I was naively assuming a metre or two”
    That is extremely large. The first ISS module was place up there 16 years ago and as far as I know has experienced no micrometeorite damage. If a lunar habitat had enough shielding for radiation (about 4-5 meters) that ought to be enough shielding for meteorites for I would guess decades to centuries.

    “concrete…air tight”
    Right, it probably wouldn’t be airtight. One should always have an airtight layer.

    Caves and lava tubes are a poor choice for first location. First location should be based on easy access to resources which is at the poles. AFAIK, no one has found or proposed a cave or lava tube at the poles. Covering an inflatable with regolith should be easy enough. Being close to and harvesting water ice at the lunar poles is extremely valueable for sustainable life-support, for plants, and economically for sale of propellant in cis-lunar space.

    ” building an inflatable here”
    I wasn’t suggesting building an inflatable but rather first shipping an inflatable because of the low-mass and packable into a small volume. Later, one can fairly easily extract metals from the regolith, melt and roll it out into sheets, and so create rigid, metallic, airtight pressure vessels to cover with regolith.

  • windbourne

    I think that we all agree about inflatables when it comes to first habitats. I have high hopes for them and have been a backer of BA and Dover/ILC.
    However, Long term, I think that we will have to learn to do habitats in-situ.

    As to lava tubes/caves, they are all over the moon and mars. We do not see them because we are looking down from a long ways away, and most openings are in the shadow. But, they are where they are, not where we want them to be. For now, inflatables be the order. But down the road, it will change.

  • DougSpace

    If you listen to this program: http://archived.thespaceshow.com/shows/2222-BWB-2014-04-06.mp3
    you will hear that Contour Crafting (a form of 3-D printing) has serious problems with their equipment getting stuck with grit. Also, it needs a binder. This would be shipped from Earth which I believe would weigh a lot more than an inflatable or the binder could be sulfur from the Moon but then this would involve a mining and transport challenge. Far better in the early years to just send an inflatable, open a valve on a pressurized tank of air and let it inflate. Really, really simple and low-risk.
    My concern is that NASA is funding research into 3-D printers not so much because it is needed but because it is cool (and it most certainly is). But perhaps that money could be better spent on more important needs such as the funding for more lunar greenhouse research at the University of Arizona, Tucson. We really need that research to be completed.

  • Hug Doug

    there are lots of micrometeorite nicks and dings on the ISs, all relatively minor. Zarya has a few as well. micrometeorite impacts are a constant hazard to the ISS and operations on it.

    http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/gallery/images/station/crew-15/html/iss015e10854.html

    http://www.universetoday.com/101567/how-micrometeoroid-impacts-pose-a-danger-for-todays-spacewalk/

    http://www.spacesafetymagazine.com/2012/06/14/micrometeroid-hit-iss-cupola/

    http://news.softpedia.com/news/Micrometeorite-Hits-the-International-Space-Station-Punching-a-Bullet-Hole-349617.shtml

    the lack of atmosphere on the Moon means that you will have a similar level of micrometeorite damage, though you don’t have to worry about any strikes coming from underneath you.

  • DougSpace

    Thanks Doug. That’s very helpful.