Potatoes in space: Boffins cook up cosmic concrete for off-world habitats
Extraterrestrial regolith biocomposite, you say? I’ll have two
Have you ended up on Mars or the Moon and do you want to build a safe home from the dusty material surrounding you? Then potatoes are what you need, according to researchers at Manchester University.
Scientists at the famed institution have created a new material, they call "StarCrete", which is not made from actual stars, but from the dust which gathers on the Moon and Mars, plus potato starch, and a pinch of salt.
While proposals for the inhabitation of the Moon or Mars are abundant — NASA, Roscosmos, SpaceX and the European Space Agency have tentative proposals — the question remains over how to build dwellings for the unlucky Martian migrants.
The problem with building anything to live on another planet or moon is that every kilogram of material you take costs fuel. And — such are the laws of rocketry — every kilogram of fuel costs more fuel. So there is sort of a double cost to everything you take.
To get around the problem, dreamers of cosmic exploration have long suggested using what is already there when voyagers arrive. Here, Manchester University — which boasts atom-splitter Ernest Rutherford among its alumni — steps in.
In an article published in the journal Open Engineering, a research team showed potato starch is a good binding agent for unconsolidated regolith (that's extra-terrestrial dust and soil).
The resultant StarCrete — which also requires a pinch of salt — demonstrates a compressive strength of 72 Megapascals (MPa), more than twice the 32 MPa exhibited by ordinary concrete, the researchers said. Starcrete made from moon dust was even stronger at over 91 MPa.
The performance suggests the material would be strong enough to build dwellings capable of withstanding the impact of smallish meteorites and also shelter unfortunate human inhabitants from cosmic rays. The imagined buildings would be airtight by means of "lightweight, inflatable habitats by countering the extreme thermal and pressure differences between indoor and outdoor environments," the paper said.
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These being engineers, they have even come up with their own acronym for the product. Their proposed building material is called extraterrestrial regolith biocomposite, or ERB for short.
Of course, it is within the scope of current scientific understanding that humans exploring Mars are almost certain not to find potatoes there. The paper assumes future interplanetary explorers will grow them, but offers scant detail.
“Since starch is the primary constituent of staple foods such as rice, potatoes, and maize, any sustained off-world habitat will likely have the capability to produce starch as food for inhabitants,” the research said. ®