Researchers Make Bricks From Simulated Moon Dust


1.5 tonne building block produced as a demonstration (Credit: ESA)

COLOGNE, Germany (ESA PR) — Lunar masonry starts on Earth. European researchers are working with Moon dust simulants that could one day allow astronauts to build habitats on our natural satellite and pave the way for human space exploration.

The surface of the Moon is covered in grey, fine, rough dust. This powdery soil is everywhere – an indigenous source that could become the ideal material for brickwork. You can crush it, burn it and compress it.

“Moon bricks will be made of dust,” says Aidan Cowley, ESA’s science advisor with a wealth of experience in dealing with lunar soil. “You can create solid blocks out of it to build roads and launch pads, or habitats that protect your astronauts from the harsh lunar environment.”

European teams see Moon dust as the starting point to building up a permanent lunar outpost and breaking explorers’ reliance on Earth supplies.

3D-printed lunar base design (Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners)

Lunar soil is a basaltic material made up of silicates, a common feature in planetary bodies with volcanism.

“The Moon and Earth share a common geological history, and it is not difficult to find material similar to that found on the Moon in the remnants of lava flows,” explains Aidan.

Around 45 million years ago, eruptions took place in a region around Cologne, in Germany. Researches from the nearby European Astronaut Centre (EAC) found that the volcanic powder in the area is a good match with what lunar dust is made of. And there is plenty of it.

The lunar dust substitute ‘made in Europe’ already has a name: EAC-1.

The Spaceship EAC initiative is working with EAC-1 to prepare technologies and concepts for future lunar exploration.

“One of the great things about the lunar soil is that 40% of it is made up of oxygen,” adds Aidan. One Spaceship EAC project studies how to crack the oxygen in it and use it to help astronauts extend their stay on the Moon.

Bombarded with constant radiation, lunar dust is electrically charged. This can cause particles to lift off the surface. Erin Tranfield, a member of ESA’s lunar dust topical team, insists that we still need to fully understand its electrostatic nature.

Scientists do not yet know its chemical charge, nor the consequences for building purposes. Trying to recreate the behaviour of lunar dust in a radiation environment, Erin ground the surface of lunar simulants. She managed to activate the particles, but erased the properties of the surface.

“This gives us one more reason to go back to the Moon. We need pristine samples from the surface exposed to the radiation environment,” says Erin. For this biologist who dreams of being the first woman on the Moon, a few sealed grams of lunar dust would be enough.

  • windbourne

    The original habitats should be in the ground, as in tunnels, not on top. Either use the brick maker to line tunnels, or try to make glass for putting up greenhouses.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Aluminum and Titanium would be even better to have. Great for bracing tunnels, building domes, sheets for creating dust free landing fields, etc.

  • Paul451

    A glass greenhouse to withstand 1atm pressure difference? (10 tonnes of force per square metre.)

  • windbourne

    We do not even fly commercial aircraft with 1 ATM diff. Why would we run a base a 1 ATM?

  • Vladislaw

    New Method for 3-D Printing Extraterrestrial Materials

    “Northwestern University’s Ramille Shah and her Tissue Engineering and Additive Manufacturing (TEAM) Laboratory have demonstrated the ability to 3D-print structures with simulants of Martian and lunar dust. This work uses an extension of their “3D-painting process,” a term that Shah and her team use for their novel 3D inks and printing method, which they previously employed to print hyperelastic “bone”, 3D graphene and carbon nanotubes, and metals and alloys.”

    and

    “Shah’s research uses NASA-approved lunar and Martian dust simulants, which have similar compositions, particle shapes, and sizes to the dusts found on lunar and Martian surfaces. Shah’s team created the lunar and Martian 3D paints using the respective dusts, a series of simple solvents, and biopolymer, then 3D printed them with a simple extrusion process. The resulting structures are over 90 percent dust by weight.

    Despite being made of rigid micro-rocks, the resulting 3D-painted material is flexible, elastic, and tough — similar to rubber. This is the first example of rubber-like or soft materials resulting from lunar and Martian simulant materials. The material can be cut, rolled, folded, and otherwise shaped after being 3D painted, if desired.

    “We even 3D-printed interlocking bricks, similar to Legos, that can be used as building blocks,” Shah said.”

    http://spaceref.com/nasa-hack-space/new-method-for-3-d-printing-extraterrestrial-materials.html

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/40c44190b8634a0a465f77b9b2455eb776e8e6fee496044741f80927677a81ac.jpg

  • Paul451

    Okay, 8 tonnes per square metre.

  • windbourne

    Probably more like 4 tonnes per m^2. keep windows smaller and multiple levels of them. issue solved.

  • Paul451

    Probably more like 4 tonnes per m^2

    40% of SL? No. The oxygen level as a percentage would have to be high to support physically active people, which would be a major fire risk (wet vs dry chemistry.) IMO, you’d want to raise the pressure above SL and keep the oxygen level at or just below SL pp., in order to reduce the fire risk below Earth normal. Fire in a close atmosphere is bad and a large settlement can’t be material-restricted like a capsule or space-suit. Especially if, by definition, you are growing plants in the greenhouse. So organic matter.)

    (Using 21% oxygen, the standard recommendation is no less that 80% of SL. Below that level, cognition is an issue. At 40% of SL total pressure, 2.5psi pp oxygen (80% SL ppe) is over 40% oxygen. At that level, even silicone burns like wood.)

    keep windows smaller and multiple levels of them. issue solved.

    You were talking about a greenhouse.

    Aside: I forgot this was in the context of the moon. Why are we talking about a natural sunlight greenhouse on the moon? Except at the “Peaks of eternal light”, you dealing with a 14-day night. (And the associated thermal cycle.)

    (And even at the so-called “peaks of eternal light”, light isn’t. There’s actually nowhere on the moon that has permanent sunlight. I suspect that a few km high mirror-tower at a POEL might be enough to hit permanent sunlight. Or find a POEL where the irregular day/night cycle is compatible with the grown season of a few plants. But it seems like a lot of effort just to have a surface greenhouse.)