A No-Bake Method for Making Bricks on Mars

As anybody who’s ever tried to cram a week’s worth of clothes into a carry-on suitcase can attest, smart packing is key. Nowhere is this truer than on missions to space, where every single ounce counts. Now engineers have figured out a way to ditch one bulky item: the chemistry equipment that Martian settlers would need to turn the planet’s dirt into bricks. They published their research in the journal Scientific Reports.

While some researchers are hard at work puzzling out how to feed future colonists, others, like structural engineer Yu Qiao of UC San Diego, want to make sure we’ve got somewhere to live when we get there.

NASA is currently investigating a number of different building methods and materials, including 3-D printing. The most obvious solution might just be for settlers to make building materials out of Martian soil—or it would be, if the soil’s chemical composition weren’t so tricky. Researchers have come up with ways to transform the dirt into bricks, but these involve complex chemistry or bringing along bulky equipment like nuclear-powered kilns.

Qiao and his colleagues thought there might be a way to simplify the chemical approach. They analyzed the soil and its physical properties, hoping to reduce the number of polymers needed to bind the loose sediment into a solid, strong object.

They reduced the number, all right. Their results showed that the soil could be successfully compressed into dense chunks without any polymers at all. The same iron oxide that gives the planet its rusty color can also help bind soil particles together.


Even without rebar, the new bricks are stronger than steel-reinforced concrete. On the right is a sample after testing to the point of failure. Image Credit: Jacobs School of Engineering/UC San Diego.

The new bricks are also surprisingly tough, able to withstand more force and pressure than steel-reinforced concrete. Best of all, making them uses a no-bake recipe. The soil can be air-dried and compressed using flattened pistons.

Qiao views his team’s progress as a pragmatic but vital contribution to the future. “The people who go to Mars will be incredibly brave,” he said in a statement. “They will be pioneers. And I would be honored to be their brick maker.”

Header image courtesy of NASA/JPL.

No Venom, No Problem: This Spider Uses a Slingshot to Catch Prey

Courtesy of Sarah Han
Courtesy of Sarah Han

There are thousands of ways nature can kill, and spider species often come up with the most creative methods of execution. Hyptiotes cavatus, otherwise known as the triangle weaver spider, is one such example. Lacking venom, the spider manages to weaponize its silk, using it to hurl itself forward like a terrifying slingshot to trap its prey.

This unusual method was studied up close for a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers at the University of Akron in Ohio. They say it's the only known instance of an animal using an external device—its web—for power amplification.

Hyptiotes cavatus's technique is simple. After constructing a web, the spider takes one of the main strands and breaks it in half, pulling it taut by moving backwards. Then, it anchors itself to a spot with more webbing in the rear. When the spider releases that webbing, it surges forward, propelled by the sudden release of stored energy. In the slingshot analogy, the webbing is the strap and the spider is the projectile.

This jerking motion causes the web to oscillate, tangling the spider's prey further in silk. The spider can repeat this until the web has completely immobilized its prey, a low-risk entrapment that doesn’t require the spider to get too close and risk injury from larger victims.

The triangle weaver spider doesn’t have venom, and it needs to be proactive in attacking and stifling prey. Once a potential meal lands in its web, it’s able to clear distances much more quickly using this slingshot technique than if it crawled over. In the lab, scientists clocked the spider’s acceleration at 2535 feet per second squared.

Spiders are notoriously nimble and devious. Cebrennus rechenbergi, or the flic-flac spider, can do cartwheels to spin out of danger; Myrmarachne resemble ants and even wiggle their front legs like ant antennae. It helps them avoid predators, but if they see a meal, they’ll drop the act and pounce. With H. cavatus, it now appears they’re learning to use tools, too.

[h/t Live Science]

Bad News: The Best Time of the Day to Drink Coffee Isn’t as Soon as You Wake Up

iStock.com/ThomasVogel
iStock.com/ThomasVogel

If you depend on coffee to help get you through the day, you can rest assured that you’re not the world's only caffeine fiend. Far from it. According to a 2018 survey, 64 percent of Americans said they had consumed coffee the previous day—the highest percentage seen since 2012.

While we’re collectively grinding more beans, brewing more pots, and patronizing our local coffee shops with increased frequency, we might not be maximizing the health and energy-boosting benefits of our daily cup of joe. According to Inc., an analysis of 127 scientific studies highlighted the many benefits of drinking coffee, from a longer average life span to a reduced risk for cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease.

Sounds great, right? The only problem is that the benefits of coffee might be diminished depending on the time of day that you drink it. Essentially, science tells us that it’s best to drink coffee when your body’s cortisol levels are low. That’s because both caffeine and cortisol cause a stress response in your body, and too much stress is bad for your health for obvious reasons. In addition, it might end up making you more tired in the long run.

Cortisol, a stress hormone, is released in accordance with your circadian rhythms. This varies from person to person, but in general, someone who wakes up at 6:30 a.m. would see their cortisol levels peak in different windows, including 8 to 9 a.m., noon to 1 p.m., and 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Someone who rises at 10 a.m. would experience cortisol spikes roughly three hours later, and ultra-early risers can expect to push this schedule three hours forward.

However, these cortisol levels start to rise as soon as you start moving in the morning, so it isn’t an ideal time to drink coffee. Neither is the afternoon, because doing so could make it more difficult to fall asleep at night. This means that people who wake up at 6:30 a.m. should drink coffee after that first cortisol window closes—roughly between 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.—if they want to benefit for a little caffeine jolt.

To put it simply: "I would say that mid-morning or early afternoon is probably the best time," certified dietitian-nutritionist Lisa Lisiewski told CNBC. "That's when your cortisol levels are at their lowest and you actually benefit from the stimulant itself."

[h/t Inc.]

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