Crushed Mars ‘dust’ mixed with a titanium alloy have made a ‘stronger high-performance’ material that could one day be utilised at a space exploration base on the red planet.

Scientists at Washington State University (USA) have discovered using a small amount of simulated crushed Martian rock mixed with a titanium alloy created a material that, in a 3D-printing process, could one day be used in space exploration to make tools or rocket parts.

The parts were made by Washington State University researchers with as little as 5% up to 100% Martian regolith, a black powdery substance meant to mimic the rocky, inorganic material found on the surface of the red planet.

Amit Bandyopadhyay, a professor in WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, said that while the parts with 5% Martian regolith were strong, the 100% regolith parts proved brittle and cracked easily, although even high-Martian content materials would be useful in making coatings to protect equipment from rust or radiation damage.

“In space, 3D printing is something that has to happen if we want to think of a manned mission because we really cannot carry everything from here. And if we forgot something, we cannot come back to get it.”

Bringing materials into space can be extremely expensive. Anything that can be made in space, or on the planet, would save weight and money – not to mention if something breaks, astronauts would need a way to repair it on-site; a key tenet of future space exploration.

Bandyopadhyay first demonstrated the feasibility of this idea in 2011 when his team used 3D-printing to manufacture parts from lunar regolith, simulated crushed moon rock, for NASA. Since then, space agencies have embraced the technology, and the International Space Station has its own 3D-printers to manufacture needed materials on-site and for experiments.

Better properties

For this study, Bandyopadhyay along with graduate students Ali Afrouzian and Kellen Traxel, used a powder-based 3D printer to mix the simulated Martian rock dust with a titanium alloy, a metal often used in space exploration for its strength and heat-resistant properties. As part of the process, a high-powered laser heated the materials to over 2,000°C.

The melted mix of Martian regolith-ceramic and metal material then flowed onto a moving platform that allowed the researchers to create different sizes and shapes. After the material cooled down, the researchers tested it for strength and durability.

The ceramic material made from 100% Martian rock dust cracked as it cooled, but as Bandyopadhyay pointed out it could still make good coatings for radiation shields as cracks do not matter in that context. But the mixture with 5% regolith, not only did not crack or bubble but also exhibited better properties than the titanium alloy alone, which meant it could be used to make lighter-weight pieces that could still bear heavy loads.

There is a hope that future research may yield better composites using different metals or 3D-printing techniques.

Bandyopadhyay added: “This establishes that it is possible, and maybe we should think in this direction because it’s not just making plastic parts which are weak but metal-ceramic composite parts which are strong and can be used for any kind of structural parts.”

This study was published in the International Journal of Applied Ceramic Technology.