Northwestern scientists take step toward human life on Mars with ‘Martian concrete’

Benjamin Din, Digital Projects Editor

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Material scientists at Northwestern have brought mankind one step closer to living on Mars.

Led by Lin Wan (Graduate School ‘15), the team of scientists have discovered a way to make “Martian concrete.”

Created with melted sulfur and soil from Mars, the concrete mixture has one notably absent ingredient: water, one of the most precious resources on Mars for humans. Instead, sulfur is liquidized by being heated up, and then mixed with the soil. After cooling, the sulfur solidifies, creating the concrete.

The use of sulfur concrete is not novel, and has run into multiple problems in the past.

In the 1970s, material scientists attempted to use sulfur concrete to build materials on the moon, according to the MIT Technology Review. They discovered the material would quickly disappear into gas due to atmospheric conditions.

The concrete has also been found to shrink during the cooling process, creating cavities and weakening the mixture. However, the NU scientists realized that using the right amount of ingredients – about 50 percent sulfur and 50 percent Martian soil with maximum aggregate size of one millimeter – created a material suitable for atmospheric conditions on Mars.

The substance will be extremely sturdy for building structures on Mars, reaching a compressive strength that is more than double the compressive strength required for residential building standards on Earth.

Practically and financially, the mixture also offers additional advantages. Not only is the concrete recyclable – sulfur melts when heated, allowing it to be reused – but it is also a much cheaper alternative to transporting building materials from Earth.

Although the first human setting foot on Mars is most likely still a few years away, the recipe for “Martian concrete” will be helpful for when that time comes.

Email: benjamindin@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @benjamindin

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