The quest to eventually settle Mars has taken a decidedly corporeal turn. Because Mars lacks many of the natural building blocks needed to sustain life and transporting these materials is too costly, scientists are exploring human blood and other bodily fluids as a means to fill the gap in creating the requisite construction supplies needed to thrive on the Red Planet.
One item particularly needed is brick, or more precisely, concrete, to build the multiple structures that would house future human settlements. According to Space.com, “Hardy bricks can be made by combining lunar or Martian dirt with a protein found in human blood and a compound called urea from sweat, tears or urine.”
In an article titled Blood, sweat and tears: extraterrestrial regolith biocomposites with in vivo binders, Aled D.Roberts and his colleagues argue, “In essence, HSA [human serum albumin] produced by astronauts in vivo could be extracted on a semi-continuous basis and combined with Lunar or Martian regolith to ‘get stone from blood’ to rephrase the proverb.”
If realized, this process could be a sustainable, self-replicating dynamic that provides a continuous supply of a key building ingredient in concrete, or in this case AstroCrete. According to cnet.com, Roberts and his colleagues “worked out that six astronauts could produce over 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) of AstroCrete during a two-year mission. The material could potentially be 3D-printed, and could act as a mortar for sandbags.”
One has to wonder if the ghost of Socrates was at play in the divination of this discovery. As Roberts puts it, “Scientists have been trying to develop viable technologies to produce concrete-like materials on the surface of Mars, but we never stopped to think that the answer might be inside us all along.”
But blood is not the only body fluid in the mix, so to speak. Robert’s team has also determined that urea, a substance found in human urine and sweat, may also provide a strengthening and flexibility element to AstroCrete.
As Michele Star of Science Alert explains, “These materials had compressive strengths as high as 25 megapascals, comparable to the strengths between 20 and 32 megapascals found in ordinary concrete here on Earth. Adding urea made the material even more impressive, increasing the compressive strength of AstroCrete to up to 39.7 megapascals” which translates into an increase in compressive strength by over 300%!
Just as impressive is the quantity of AstroCrete that could be created by even a small crew. As reported by the University of Manchester, “If used as a mortar for sandbags or heat-fused regolith bricks, each crew member could produce enough AstroCrete to expand the habitat to support an additional crew member, doubling the housing available with each successive mission.”
Although this is a big first step (or one giant leap), in reality, planning for construction on Mars is extremely challenging for a variety of reasons, beyond a lack of building materials. The ultimate challenge is our fundamental lack of experiential knowledge about taking on such an endeavor.
As Valentina Sumini, a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Caitlin Mueller, an Associate Professor at MIT in the Building Technology Program, write, sending a manned mission to Mars “is a challenging, multi-disciplinary problem that requires expertise from a wide variety of fields: aerospace engineering, environmental engineering, social science, urban planning, design, architecture – and especially structural engineering” adding “[U]nlike structural engineering for the built environment on Earth, there are virtually zero rules of thumb or design precedents to draw on for construction on Mars or the Moon.”
One thing is abundantly clear, however: we don’t lack the blood, sweat, and tears to get this job done.
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