Sustainable Innovation for Earth & Space
Basalt Research for the Moon & Mars
We study Hawaiian volcanic basalt to develop In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) processes for the Moon and Mars. ISRU takes local, raw materials and transforms them into critical resources like oxygen, water, fuel, and building materials. Hawaiʻi basalt has a very similar chemical profile to regolith, making it an excellent medium for studying the behavior of lunar and Martian dirt.
Graph: Chemical profiles of eight basalt samples taken from different locations on Hawaiʻi Island are compared with a Martian meteorite.
Low-Energy Additive Manufacturing
In 2021, we partnered wtih Masten Space Systems on a NASA Phase 1 STTR grant to research a low-energy additive manufacturing technique that could create materials for shelters, roads, and landing pads on the Moon and Mars. Formulating a novel binder-regolith composite, we created bricks that cured with a relatively low level of thermal energy, improving energy efficiency using only raw materials that can be found in-situ on the Moon and Mars.
The second part of the project (currently under way) is being funded by a NASA Phase 2 STTR grant and will develop an extruder for the binder-regolith composite that can withstand harsh environments while automating the manufacturing process.
Planetary LEGO Blocks
In 2017, we received a NASA Small Technology Transfer Research (STTR) Phase 1 grant in partnership with Honeybee Robotics to develop Planetary LEGOs—an interlocking brick for additive manufacturing applications made with sintered Hawaiian basalt.
In collaboration with Honeybee Robotics, this project focused on refining the LEGO design while developing an automated construction process to build them. Our technicians discovered the ideal sintering temperature and duration to mold basalt fines into large, durable bricks. Enlisting help from the creative minds of our interns, the LEGO design was reimagined for greater versatility, including vertical and horizontal construction applications. Our friends at Honeybee Robotics designed the robotic mechanisms needed to automate the entire process—from sintering and molding the blocks, to building structures with them.
Robotically Built ISRU Launch Pad
In late 2015, we completed a robotically-built launch and landing pad made of sintered basalt together with NASA SwampWorks, Honeybee Robotics, ARGO, and the Hawaiʻi County Dept. of R & D. This unique additive manufacturing project incorporated Hawaiian volcanic basalt and our Helelani planetary rover. Helelani was equipped with a leveling blade and robotic arm to grade the launch pad site and place the basalt pavers. NASA SwampWorks remotely controlled the rover from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, laying 100 pavers that composed the landing pad surface. In addition to developing ISRU research, the project served as a practice exercise for NASA’s Resource Prospector mission to the lunar surface.
In Spring 2015, we partnered with the Hawaiʻi County Dept. of R & D, the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, NASA, and Kodiak FRP Rebar to pour a ‘lunar sidewalk’ in downtown Hilo. The sidewalk consisted of experimental concrete slabs made from sintered basalt. Our goal was to test and develop a sustainable construction material that could be used on Earth and other planets. Three section were installed including a fly-ash basalt paver, a baked basalt paver, and a fly-ash binder reinforced with Kodiak FRP basalt rebar.
After a one-year assessment, our test results found the fly-ash basalt paver exceeded the durability of traditional concrete. The baked basalt pavers showed less durability, but were redesigned for our robotically built launch pad project where they outperformed residential concrete.
Through this project, we aimed to reduce the environmental impacts associated with cement including the financial and environmental costs of importing more than 300,000 metric tons of cement to Hawaiʻi each year. Globally, cement production accounts for an estimated 5 – 7% of total CO2 emissions.