Applied Research

Earth & Space: Innovation for Sustainability 

We are actively researching In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) technologies for additive manufacturing that advance space exploration and offer novel, sustainable products here on Earth. In collaboration with our partners in academia, government, and the commerical sector, we lead advanced basalt research that can enable construction for key infrastructure on the Moon and Mars. Our projects are continually funded through state and federal grant programs focused on aerospace research and economic development.

Graph: Chemical profiles of eight basalt samples taken from different locations on Hawaiʻi Island are compared with a Martian meteorite.

Basalt Research for the Moon & Mars 

We are actively researching additive manufacturing methods using 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 material. Hawaiʻi basalt has a very similar chemical profile to regolith, making it an excellent medium for studying the behavior of lunar and Martian dirt.
Through years of sampling, analysis, and testing, we have identified the ideal basalt compositions for creating exceptionally durable materials through sintering. Testing has shown them to be stronger than commercial-grade concrete. With no additives or toxins involved, our sintered basalt products also have many uses on Earth.

Past Research Projects

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 made using sintered Hawaiian basalt for additive manufacturing applications. Since Hawaiian basalt closely resembles Martian and lunar regolith in chemical composition, the methodology behind the blocks can be used here on Earth, and also on the Moon and Mars.

Working together with Honeybee Robotics, this project focused on refining the LEGO design while developing an automated construction process to construct 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.

planetary lego blocks

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 to complete the final phase of the project, laying 100  pavers that composed the landing surface. The project served as a practice exercise for NASA’s Resource Prospector mission to the lunar surface.

 

rover and launch pad

Lunar Concrete

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 using experimental concrete slabs made of 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.

Though this project, we aimed to reduce the environmental impacts associated with cement including reducing the financial and environmental costs of importing to Hawaiʻi more than 300,000 metric tons of cement each year. Cement production worldwide also accounts for an estimated 5 – 7% of global CO2 emissions.

lunar concrete