Applied Research

INNOVATION & SUSTAINABILITY

We collaborate with partners in academia, government, and the commercial sector to research additive manufacturing technologies and sustainable solutions for space exploration.

sintered basalt tile
a pool of molten basalt poured into a mold
sintered basalt tile

Researching Hawaiʻi Volcanic Basalt

We study Hawaiʻi volcanic basalt to develop ISRU technology for sustaining life beyond Earth. ISRU takes local, raw materials and transforms them into critical resources like oxygen, water, fuel, and building materials. Hawaiʻi’s basalt has comparable chemical properties to regolith, making it an excellent medium for studying the behavior of lunar and Martian surface soil.
Through years of sampling, analysis, and testing, we have identified the ideal basalt compositions for creating exceptionally durable materials. Testing has proven these materials to be stronger than commercial-grade concrete. With no additives or toxins used in the process, our sintered basalt products have practical uses for both Earth and space.
Graph: Chemical profiles of eight basalt samples taken from different locations on Hawaiʻi Island are compared with a Martian meteorite.

Previous Research

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  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.

basalt pucks cured without heat

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 with sintered Hawaiian basalt for additive manufacturing applications. This project created a refined block design and an automated construction process to fit the blocks together. 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 Department of Research and Development. This unique project partnered Hawaiʻi volcanic basalt and our Helelani planetary rover. Helelani was equipped with a leveling blade and robotic arm to grade the launch pad site and emplace basalt pavers. NASA SwampWorks remotely controlled the rover from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, laying 100 pavers that comprised the landing pad surface. In addition to developing ISRU technology, 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 Department of Research and Development, 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 to 7% of total CO2 emissions.

lunar concrete