Exploration, Materials, News, Space

Chitin: Construction material for Mars?

A new study suggests use chitin to build structures and tools on Mars, for future colonies on the red planet.

Source: Universe Today

A new study says we could use chitin for building material. Chitin is well-known as the material that arthropod exoskeletons are made of, though it’s also present in many other lifefroms, and is a major component in the cell walls of fungi.

The title of the new research is “Martian biolith: A bioinspired regolith composite for closed-loop extraterrestrial manufacturing.” The lead author is Javier Fernandez, of the Singapore University of Technology and Design. The paper is published in the journal PLOS One.

The idea behind the new study was to produce chitin with simple chemistry and minimal energy. The first step was to sort of “reverse engineer” chitin itself. By taking chitin shells from shrimp or other creatures and treating it with something alkaline, you get what’s called chitosan. Then the chitosan is combined with an analog of Martian soil. That new chitinous material is called biolith, and it’s very useful.

The chitin is a polysaccharide formed by chains of N-acetylglucosamine molecules. Source: Info Escola.
Sculptures made of biolith, built by study’s author. From the same news’ source.

This is all part of the understanding that in-situ resource extraction and manufacturing is necessary in space exploration. For a sustained human presence anywhere in the Solar System other than Earth, it’s simply impossible to carry everything we need by blasting it into space with enormous rockets.

In this study, they point out that ISRU (In-Situ Resource Utilization) facilites could already be in place on Mars prior to the arrival of settlers. So engineers and specialists would first visit the surface to build these facilities. Among other things, the biolith could be used to build rigid protective structures around inflatable habitats.

This technology was actually developed to solve problems here on Earth, by creating circular systems in urban settings. “The technology was originally developed to create circular ecosystems in urban environments, but due to its efficiency, it is also the most efficient and scalable method to produce materials in a closed artificial ecosystem in the extremely scarce environment of a lifeless planet or satellite,” said Fernandez.

One of the benefits of this biolith is its flexibility. It can be used in a variety of manufacturing methods that don’t put the material under elevated pressures and temperatures. The authors write in their paper that “The versatility of biolith in applications without elevated temperature or pressure is demonstrated in an unprecedented range of manufacturing methods, such as casting, using it as mortar and in additive manufacturing.”

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