Doctoral Student Wins NASA Fellowships to Study Concrete in Space

A civil engineering doctoral candidate at Penn State University (University Park, Pennsylvania, USA) was granted two fellowships from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (Washington, DC, USA) to study how concrete can be developed in space.

Peter Collins, the doctoral student in question, received a three-year NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunity (NSTGRO) and a one-year Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium NASA Graduate Fellowship. “Civil engineering is not a heavily represented field in the realm of space technology, but the future goals for human space exploration are starting to change that narrative, and I am proud to be a part of it,” says Collins.

Collins is a member of the university’s Concrete Research Group, which is currently engaged in a project, Microgravity Investigation of Cement Solidification (MICS), that investigates how concrete—typically made with a mixture of small rocks, sand, water, and Portland cement—solidifies under different gravitational forces. Through its partnership with NASA, the MICS team sent various cement mixtures to the International Space Station (ISS). After they were mixed and solidified, the samples were returned to Earth and compared with a control group.

The team found that cement’s solidification reaction and resultant microstructure is dependent on the level of gravity. Collins plans to continue this research through his NASA fellowships by sending additional samples to the ISS and using them to develop a new concrete structure that employs materials found on the moon’s surface while maintaining current strength and durability levels.

“Thus far, our work has focused on mostly Earth-based cementitious systems,” Collins says. “The lunar regolith composition is advantageous to create an alkali-activated concrete material that does not contain a traditional Portland cement as the binding component.”

In 2019, NASA launched the Artemis program, whose goal is establishing a sustainable exploration presence on the moon and, eventually, Mars. In order to fulfill this goal, astronauts will need to build resilient lunar structures—with concrete serving as the most likely building material.

Collins’s research may also have applications for construction projects on Earth. By studying how concrete behaves in unique gravitational environments and experimenting with new mixtures, Collins and his fellow researchers could be paving the way for stronger, more durable concrete for terrestrial applications.

“A small improvement in the material could result in a large impact on Earth,” says Collins.

Source: Penn State News,