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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.

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Mysterious 'Hypatia Stone' Is Like Nothing Else in Our Solar System
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In 1996, Egyptian geologist Aly Barakat discovered a tiny, one-ounce stone in the eastern Sahara. Ever since, scientists have been trying to figure out where exactly the mysterious pebble originated. As Popular Mechanics reports, it probably wasn't anywhere near Earth. A new study in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta finds that the micro-compounds in the rock don't match anything we've ever found in our solar system.

Scientists have known for several years that the fragment, known as the Hypatia stone, was extraterrestrial in origin. But this new study finds that it's even weirder than we thought. Led by University of Johannesburg geologists, the research team performed mineral analyses on the microdiamond-studded rock that showed that it is made of matter that predates the existence of our Sun or any of the planets in the solar system. And, its chemical composition doesn't resemble anything we've found on Earth or in comets or meteorites we have studied.

Lead researcher Jan Kramers told Popular Mechanics that the rock was likely created in the early solar nebula, a giant cloud of homogenous interstellar dust from which the Sun and its planets formed. While some of the basic materials in the pebble are found on Earth—carbon, aluminum, iron, silicon—they exist in wildly different ratios than materials we've seen before. Researchers believe the rock's microscopic diamonds were created by the shock of the impact with Earth's atmosphere or crust.

"When Hypatia was first found to be extraterrestrial, it was a sensation, but these latest results are opening up even bigger questions about its origins," as study co-author Marco Andreoli said in a press release.

The study suggests the early solar nebula may not have been as homogenous as we thought. "If Hypatia itself is not presolar, [some of its chemical] features indicate that the solar nebula wasn't the same kind of dust everywhere—which starts tugging at the generally accepted view of the formation of our solar system," Kramer said.

The researchers plan to further probe the rock's origins, hopefully solving some of the puzzles this study has presented.

[h/t Popular Mechanics]

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Ocean Waves Are Powerful Enough to Toss Enormous Boulders Onto Land, Study Finds
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During the winter of 2013-2014, the UK and Ireland were buffeted by a number of unusually powerful storms, causing widespread floods, landslides, and coastal evacuations. But the impact of the storm season stretched far beyond its effect on urban areas, as a new study in Earth-Science Reviews details. As we spotted on Boing Boing, geoscientists from Williams College in Massachusetts found that the storms had an enormous influence on the remote, uninhabited coast of western Ireland—one that shows the sheer power of ocean waves in a whole new light.

The rugged terrain of Ireland’s western coast includes gigantic ocean boulders located just off a coastline protected by high, steep cliffs. These massive rocks can weigh hundreds of tons, but a strong-enough wave can dislodge them, hurling them out of the ocean entirely. In some cases, these boulders are now located more than 950 feet inland. Though previous research has hypothesized that it often takes tsunami-strength waves to move such heavy rocks onto land, this study finds that the severe storms of the 2013-2014 season were more than capable.

Studying boulder deposits in Ireland’s County Mayo and County Clare, the Williams College team recorded two massive boulders—one weighing around 680 tons and one weighing about 520 tons—moving significantly during that winter, shifting more than 11 and 13 feet, respectively. That may not sound like a significant distance at first glance, but for some perspective, consider that a blue whale weighs about 150 tons. The larger of these two boulders weighs more than four blue whales.

Smaller boulders (relatively speaking) traveled much farther. The biggest boulder movement they observed was more than 310 feet—for a boulder that weighed more than 44 tons.

These boulder deposits "represent the inland transfer of extraordinary wave energies," the researchers write. "[Because they] record the highest energy coastal processes, they are key elements in trying to model and forecast interactions between waves and coasts." Those models are becoming more important as climate change increases the frequency and severity of storms.

[h/t Boing Boing]

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