Skip to main content

Nanomachines.  Generic "factories".  Handwaving.  These are the cop-outs used by science fiction writers to bring a Mars colony's industrial base into existence.  But the reality isn't so pretty.  In this diary, we will examine the industrial requirements of such a colony, compare it to past colonization efforts, and look at potential solutions.

Part One: Beyond The Space Elevator: A Glimpse Of Alternative Methods For Space Launch
Part Two: Where Will We Begin?
Part Three: Who Will Bring It About And Why?
Part Four: The Industry Dilemma

Historical example

In Dyson's comparison between interplanetary colonization and historical colonization expeditions, he comes up with the cost of renting and provisioning the Mayflower of 1,500 to 3,600 pounds, with an expected cost of around 2,500 pounds.  If you convert this into today's dollars by comparing wages at the time to today's wages, that's $22M ($170,000 per passenger, counting crew).  If you compare agricultural prices, it cost $600,000 ($4,500 per passenger).

Only half of the people who departed England survived the voyage.  The passengers arrived in the new world with the ship's provisions -- food, enough clothing to nominally last seven years, furniture of all kinds, cutlery, earthenware, rifles, lead for bulletmaking, gunpowder, and countless tools -- hoes, shovels, rakes, axes, sickles, adzes, hammers, mallets, nails, etc.  Even with all of their preparation, they began their survival in the harsh new world by robbing food and supplies from an abandoned native village, and continued the theft for much of the early colony's history.

The overwhelming majority of their supplies from the colony came from "bootstrapping".  They cut down trees and hauled logs to build houses and fortifications.  They gathered plants to make rope and thatch for houses.  Construction began in late December and was finished by February.  The next year, they began planting fields.  They were aided by local knowledge taught to them by the Wampanoag tribe.  The colony, while still trading with England, was nearly self-sustaining after their first harvest, and certainly by the very successful subsequent harvest in 1621.  The colony as a whole could have been completely self-sufficient, had circumstances required it, within one to two decades.

The entire "essential" tech base required of the early European settlers to the Americas consisted largely of the following:

  1. Charcoal, the key element of much of 17th century industry, was produced in charcoal kilns.  These were extremely large, carefully built bonfire layouts of coppiced wood which were then buried in thick layers of dirt, with only small openings for oxygen to enter and exhaust to leave.  They would bake themselves for long periods of time, the ash would be removed, and the charcoal would then be sold.
  1. Gunpowder was produced from a mixture of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpetre (potassium nitrate).  Sulfur is produced simply by heating sulfur-rich soil; the "brimstone" drains out.  It can also be found pure or near pure in geologically-active areas.  Potassium nitrate is produced by aging manure and urine under a roof, running it through hardwood ash, boiling it with turnip halves and oxblood to remove the organic matter, and drying it.  The process of turning the ingredients into a gunpowder that will explode rather than just burn took great skill.  
  1. Bullets were produced simply by pouring lead into iron molds and letting it set; this was a simple enough task that anyone could accomplish it.  Most lead ores were likewise relatively trivial to deal with; raised to a sufficient temperature, the molten lead drips out.  No fluxing agents are required.  Galena is the primary lead ore and is one of the most abundant and widely distributed sulfide materials; there are few places in the world where it cannot be found.
  1. Pig iron was produced in a clay or brick kiln, fired by charcoal, and pumped by a bellows. The raw pig iron poured out through the bottom in guided channels.  
  1. Wrought iron was produced in a finery forge, where the pig iron would be remelted to oxidize impurities, hammered to consolidate it, and worked into a bar.
  1. Blacksmiths, such as Richard Sears, arrived on the Mayflower itself, as they were essential in the operation of a colony.  The blacksmith's workplace was a wood-framed building with a clay or brick kiln, fueled at the time by charcoal.  Bars of wrought iron were hammered into shape over an anvil and repeatedly heated until forming the desired tool, at the blacksmith's discretion.  
  1. Miscellaneous "essential" tasks, such as farming, milling, and woodworking need little explanation.

We know that smithing, charcoal production, and bullet manufacture were done in the early colony; however, the timing of the manufacture of gunpowder, the production of saltpetre, and the mining and processing of sulfur, lead, and iron ore are unknown.  Records don't become well established until a few decades later -- for example, we know that in 1650, Governor John Winthrop was granted a license to develop mines of lead, copper, and tin near Middletown, Connecticut.  While mining and production of these resources could have begun essentially immediately had prospecting data been available, the ability to trade with England decreased the importance of these activities in favor of the pursuit of defense, securing stable food production, and improving the colonists' quality of life.

The entire "essential" tech tree of a 17th century colony could be run by several dozen individuals.  The entire mining and "industrial" base could usually be established within a single region under which trade by foot or ox cart was sufficient.  If not, a colony willing to import its gunpowder, lead, iron or even whole tools could be established with minimal effort.  As noted above, the passengers plus all of their equipment to bootstrap the colony could be shipped to the new world for prices that, while expensive, were not prohibitive.  

Native Americans colonized the New World with an even simpler tech base.  They relied less on technology and more on bootstrapping.  The entire infrastructure around steel and gunpowder was omitted in favor of hand-knapped tools.

Let us contrast this to a Mars colonization mission.  On Mars, there is no bootstrapping.  There is no boot.  There are no plants.  There are no animals.  There is no air.  There is no water.  There are no natives.  There is no radiation shielding.  A colonist on Mars, therefore, is reliant on the a wide variety of modern technology merely to survive.  So their "bootstrapping" requirements are, to be blunt, to recreate a large subset of our entire technology base.  Mind you, they only need most products in low volumes.

What's the problem?

Let's just pick a single essential part.  Let's say, a part for some industrial process that deals with high temperatures, so it must be made from an alloy that retains significant strength at those temperatures.  Such alloys are generally a combination of iron, nickel, and titanium, plus trace parts of other elements.  Let's just look at one path: iron.

On earth, iron is made in a blast furnace.  Ore and coke are dropped into a furnace from the top while oxygen, purified from the air, is injected from underneath.  The primary fluxing agent is crushed limestone, which not only creates a slag which protects the molten steel from corrosion, but removes silicon and phosphorus.  While this may be where the textbook description of the process stops, that's just the tip of the iceberg.  For example, there can be many more types of fluxing agents added.  A common one is fluorspar, which increases the reaction rate and yields a higher quality product.  A source of magnesium is needed to eliminate sulfur.  And so forth.  Argon or nitrogen are often bubbled through the steel to ensure proper mixing.  And there's a huge part count at every step of the way -- everything from fan belts to slag skimmers.  Every last one of these parts has a finite lifespan, its own tech tree, and cannot be readily bootstrapped (with a few exceptions)

Now lets see what happens when we place this steel mill on Mars.  There's no coal or oil on Mars from which to make coke.  On Earth, most calcium carbonate is deposited from or in conjunction with marine microorganisms, which aren't an option for Martian sources -- although Mars likely has at least some sources of calcium carbonate, and dolomite (calcium magnesium carbonate) can be substituted.  There's no oxygen to oxidize the slag, but you still need to produce it to eliminate the impurities.  There's also virtually no atmosphere to dump waste heat to, and there's electrostatic dust interfering with your operations.  The various fluxing agents need to be gathered from points which are unlikely to all be found in the same area or even the same region of Mars (assuming you can find deposits of them all).  And, of course, you have to keep importing parts for to keep everything running.  You need oxygen to feed in, which doesn't exist in the air.  Argon and nitrogen are far rarer on Mars than on Earth.  On and on down the line.

Let us look at the Linz-Donawitz (BOS) process on Mars.  Preheated iron ore left over from our sulfuric acid process (below) is burned with methane from the Sabatier process (further below) and small amounts of oxygen (from water electrolysis) to produce high carbon pig iron, which pools at the bottom of the blast furnace (the "ladle").  No pretreatment is necessary, since we will be dealing with low sulfur iron ore, thus sparing us from the necessity of magnesium production at this point.  As is normal, a watercooled lance (which will require an extensive cooling setup -- probably water-evaporative) injects oxygen into the ladle to raise the temperature as it burns away the carbon.  The standard fluxes are then added: burnt lime or dolomite.  Optimally, the chemistry of the steel is analyzed at this point, and any adjustments to its composition are made.  The ladle is dumped into another vessel, where any alloying agents are added in.  Gasses are bubbled for mixing.  The reaction would almost certainly have to take place in a pressure vessel for proper recovery of gasses.

Note that we're not bothering to go into casting or machining yet.

So now we've gone from one requirement -- a high temperature alloy -- to the following:

  1. Nickel
  1. Titanium
  1. Other alloying agents for the part
  1. Crushed calcium carbonate
  1. Calcium carbonate roaster
  1. Fluorspar
  1. Other fluxes.
  1. A whole steel mill's worth of parts
  1. Low-sulfur iron
  1. Oxygen
  1. Other gasses, compressed
  1. Water (consumed unless a recovery circuit is present, which presents its own challenge)
  1. Radiators

Each of these have their own requirements trees -- often tremendous.  Even the simplest of them, such as "crushed calcium carbonate", can have way larger trees than you'd expect.  Ignoring the prospecting stage, for a simple crushed mineral, you need mining equipment, bucket loaders, conveyors, separation processes (float baths, froth separators, etc), ball mills, and often with various leaching and rinsing stages along the process.  Even ignoring the electronics systems and their mind-boggling number of widely varied components, you're talking tens of thousands of parts that need maintenance and a wide variety of bulk consumeables.

I noted that I'd discuss a little bit about the link between sulfuric acid and iron on Mars.  On Earth, we get our sulfuric acid -- an utterly critical industrial chemical -- from the petrochemical industry.  Since there are no natural petrochemicals contaminated with sulfur on Mars, there is no sulfuric acid coming from it.  However, there's an equivalent "problem" that can yield sulfuric acid: that of sulfur-contaminated iron.  Sulfur seems abundant in Mars's iron-based minerals examined thusfar.  An earlier process for making sulfuric acid bears a natural link to Mars-based iron production and should be integrated into Martian blast furnaces.

Powdered iron sulfates, when heated to a degree in the presence of oxygen and steam, absorb progressively more oxygen before outgassing sulfur trioxide.  The sulfur trioxide combines with the steam and enters a condenser lined with many radiators/heat exchangers, where it precipitates out as concentrated sulfuric acid.  The input iron sulfates are cycled through in a continuous process, with new sulfates added into the reaction chamber at the top and hot iron oxide removed from the base (which can then be sent on to steel production).

Potentially, raw, highly sulfur-rich iron ore could be ground in a ball mill, dumped into the reaction chamber, and baked; while some heat would be wasted heating non-sulfates, it would pass straight into steel production from there, utilizing the gained heat.  Note that the entire system, from the moment that the ore enters the reaction chamber, should be lined with acid-resistant materials, such as lead.  Steel production and sulfuric acid production could exchange heat, potentially having an single open-ended process which consumes electricity, ore, water, oxygen, calcium carbonate, other fluxing agents, and methane, and produces molten steel, slag, concentrated sulfuric acid, and carbon dioxide.

Note that we've just added a new element to our maintenance requirement: lead.  Indeed, as you trace back the tech trees for everything required for a Martian colony -- power, metals, ceramics, plastics, clothing, electronics, food and fertilizers, lubricants, hydraulic fluids, solvents, abrasives, medicine, personal items, oxygen, CO2 scrubbers, rocket fuels, and so forth -- even after optimizing your technology base to reduce part and material counts, you end up with hundreds of thousands to millions of parts, comprised of tens of thousands of chemicals, comprised of over a hundred elements.

Indeed, while some elements on the periodic table can largely substitute for one another -- for example, most rare earths have similar properties -- most cannot.  Nothing but gallium works for its various gallium arsenide and gallium nitride semiconductor applications.  If you don't produce niobium, you have to use much lower temperatures to produce superconducting magnets, greatly increasing the difficulty.  Nothing approaches hafnium's ability to give up electrons to the air, making it near universal for arc welding, and its addition to alloys is second to none for preventing corrosion in rocket engines.  Solid-state x-ray or infrared detectors, or the only so-far proven mass-produceable thin-film non-silicon solar panels?  You'll need tellurium.  In fact, if you want thermoelectrics that don't suck, you'll need both it and bismuth.  Want your high-carbon steel to be strong enough for tooling, or to be able to be bonded to titanium -- or perhaps you need a temperature-selective IR shutter?  Vanadium is the key.  If you're doing almost anything with nuclear physics (or half a dozen other fields), you're going to need beryllium.

On and on it goes.  Each of them needs their own distinct and elaborate process to produce.

Or do they?

Plasma centrifuges to the rescue?

It should be apparent by now that the key to a viable Martian industry is the consolidation of as many production processes as possible into as little machinery as possible.  In terms of resource extraction, there is one fledgling technology that could play a huge role: plasma centrifuges.

A plasma centrifuge starts with incinerating your source material in a high power electric arc.  A combination of electric fields, magnetic fields, and optionally RF keep the plasma trapped and rotating at ever-higher speeds.  The centripetal force weighing heavier on heavier ions helps overcome their natural tendancy to fully mix.  The plasma is then allowed to collide with targets based on its distance out or the heaviest elements are allowed to escape, cool, and deposit, then successively lower energy elements.  Plasma centrifuges, hence, separate not only elements, but also isotopes, based on their atomic mass.

How good are plasma centrifuges?  Well, they're not perfect, but they're not bad.  On similar-mass elements (a few percent difference), they usually get a separation factor of 1-2.  This is clearly not acceptable for most tasks, but can be boosted with repeated centrifuge stages, multiple passes, or through the use of countercurrent centrifuges.  On the other hand, plasma centrifuges were already exceeding a factor of 140 in separating the hydrogen and oxygen in water back in 1984.

The potential of plasma centrifuges for Martian resource extraction are clear.  Unlike with a gas centrifuge, where you must first convert your resource to a gasous form (which can vary depending on the elements), every element in an ore can readily be converted to plasma.  The separation factors are higher than in gas centrifuges.  The additional isotopic separation is an added bonus invaluable to any Martian nuclear industry and academic research.  Ore goes in, and what comes out is deposits of every element contained within that ore.  

So we're saved, right?  Well, not quite...

Plasma centrifuges are not without their faults, however.  It should be clear that by having plasma collide with a target, you're not only depositing it, but also damaging the target. The targets must be continually recycled.  Different elements have different chemical properties, requiring different capture methods.  Staging may be required to get sufficient purity.  Some elements are not solid under reasonable temperature and pressure conditions, and hence need more complicated collection methods.  

One big problem is that a great deal of energy is needed to run a plasma centrifuge to yield a small amount of output.  The centrifuge itself, additionally, will likely be a large object compared to its throughput.  The exact severity of these problems will not be known until an actual prototype for Martian mineral production is developed, but the problem needs to be analyzed.

One can easily say, "just build more power infrastructure and more centrifuges", but therein lies the conundrum.  That argument relies on saying to build more of something, when the equipment used to make the materials for construction maintenance is not yielding much of the materials to build them.   Likewise, building more and bigger centrifuges means more materials and more maintenance.  It should become apparent that without significant advances, plasma centrifuges will be of prime use in extracting many lesser elements from ores -- alleviating the need for mines and specialized processing equipment for each element or small group of elements.  However, the production of bulk materials -- construction metals, construction ceramics, greenhouse glazing, water, oxygen, and fertilizers -- must be done through specialized processes.  These, and their bulk feedstocks, must be provided directly.  Hence there still will be extremely large production infrastructure required.

A second problem with any approach is that not every resource is found everywhere.  A Mars colony will rely on minerals mined from all over the planet.  How can one ship these minerals back to the primary colony, where all of the production infrastructure will exist in one place?

  1. Driving: One could propose to drive the goods over these distances.  However, that will involve a great deal of wear on such a vehicle and involve traversing tremendous hazards, with extremely long transit times.
  1. Rail improves upon this, but requires an implausibly massive amount of infrastructure construction for an early colony.
  1. Rocketry could certainly do the trick, but a rocketry industry is both quite complex and extremely resource inefficient.  On a planet like Mars, with very limited production infrastructure, inefficiency equals death.

Instead, it seems that a #4 is in order:

  1. Ballistic shipment of resources.  Coilguns and railguns are excellent choices on the surface of Mars.  Mars' minimal atmosphere (0.007 ATM) and reduced gravity (0.38G) mean that goods can be launched great distances with smaller hardware and energy requirements.  

Nonetheless, there still will be a significant associated cost with each launch, in terms of wear, energy, and launch containers.  Hence, the target ore should be separated from the tailings at a bare minimum before transport.  The goods will crash down in a target zone in a destructive but controlled fashion, be collected, and loaded onto transport.  Over time as the colony grows, more industry will grow around each mine and rail will begin to link the closer mines and cities to each other.

The third big problem is that industry isn't about producing elements.  It's about producing products.  And while some products are made of pure elements, most are made of alloys or compounds.

Compounds

Raw elements are generally excellent components for initiating chemical reactions, as they tend to be highly reactive.  Many are useful in their own right.  But for the purposes of a colony, that's not enough.

When it comes to forming compounds, probably no industry is more complex than the petrochemical industry.  On Mars, one is immediately presented with a quandry: plastics and a wide variety of other petrochemicals are completely essential to modern technology, but there's no petroleum on Mars.  

Thanfully, there are a few solutions.  Allow us to trace back the creation of a single petroleum compound -- say, acrylic for Martian greenhouses.  Why acrylic?  There are dozens of types of plastics (and many varieties of them); acrylic is very light-transparent (even moreso than glass) - it's sold as Plexiglass, Lucite, etc (not to be confused with polycarbonate - Lexan).  This actually a relatively easy case compared to many other materials you'll need on Mars.

Plastics like acrylic are polymers - chains of monomers.  Acrylic is polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA).  First, of course, you're going to need a petroleum source.  This takes a variant of a process first used en masse by the Nazis in World War II - the Fischer-Tropsch process. The variant is called the Sabatier process; while Fischer-Tropsch uses carbon monoxide as its carbon source, the Sabatier process uses carbon dioxide plus additional heat energy.  Either are workable solutions on Mars.  While you can optimize them to produce chemicals in a desired weight range with specific catalysts, temperatures, and pressures, it tends to produce a fairly random mix of low weight hydrocarbons.  So, you need to distill the hydrocarbons.

Lets back up a minute - hydrogen, carbon monoxide?  Hydrogen is easy - electrolysis of water, although note the high electricity requirements (if you have a high temperature nuclear reactor, you can thermally split it as well).  There's plenty of CO2 on Mars, but not as much CO.  Thankfully, you can strip an O from CO2 with hydrogen via partial Bosch reaction, or you can produce it through partial combustion of most carbon compounds (such as graphite from the Bosch reaction).  To get that CO2 that is the root source of our carbon, you need to highly compress the Martian air (with a multistage compressor), then chill it to separate out the CO2, then reheat the CO2.  One should use a a thermally efficient process involving heat transfer to other working fluids wherever possible.

With either the Fischer-Tropsch process or the related Sabatier process, we then have to build a large chunk of an entire oil refinery -- everything from distillation towers to isomerization plants.  However, sulfur removal processes and most crackers should be able to be omitted.

Now we need to form MMA, the PMMA monomer.  This can be made through esterification of methacryllic acid (2-propenoic acid) with methanol.  Now we have two chemicals that we need to produce.  Methanol
is easier -- reacting CO with H2 on a copper/zinc oxide/alumina catalyst at high pressure and moderate temperature produces it (of course, as with each process here, you need to deal with heat exchange, waste products, tailings, etc).  Methacryllic acid (CH2=CHCOOH) is made from either ethylene+H2O+CO at high pressure and moderate temperature with a nickel bromide catalyst, or from propylene with a little oxygen and steam over a molybdenum catalyst at fairly high temperatures.  You can also make it from acetone, although that's indirect, so we won't cover that here.  The higher the temperature, the more important it is that you do heat recapture.

Now we must consider how to polymerize the MMA.  In general, you need an oxidizer; peroxides work well. Different catalysts and oxidizers will produce plastics with different properties; however, even trace amounts of O2 should work to some degree, although O2 in too large of quantities is an inhibitor.

Now we have PMMA.  It needs to then be formed into panes of resonable thickness and large size before it sets, and then be allowed to set.  Then you have to take the molded acrylic, working in pressure suits (highly constraining), and position them with cranes.  Then you have to join the fragments together with superglue (cyanoacrylate synthesis is left as an exercise to the reader).  Then you need to test-pressurize it.  Your whole greenhouse glazing will need brushes that rotate around it to clean off the accumulating dust.

If the last section of this article left you with some optimism that colonization might be easy, this section likely ruined that.  Every last step in the above requires an elaborate piece of infrastructure full of pipes, valves, electronics, heaters, heat exchangers, pumps, motors, and so forth.  And as much as we would like to say, "Okay, we'll just use one or two plastics", that's not an option.  Different plastics have very different properties, preventing a "one plastic fits all" production strategy.

Rayon is used in clothing blends. Phenolic plastics (like bakelite) are used in some circuit boards, and it can be used non-optimally in hard-plastic applications.  Polystyrene not only makes a good packing material when foamed, but is an good hard plastic.  PVC can be made into an excellent hard or soft, durable plastic which is self-extinguishing.  Nylon can be used in clothing and heavy-duty plastic parts (gears, bushings, et al).  Neoprene is a rubber replacement, as is styrene-butadiene rubber.  Polyacrylonitrile (PAN) is another resinous/rubbery plastic akin to neoprene, used in carbon fiber production.  Acrylic is used in paints, clothing, and perhaps most importantly, their transparency makes them suitable for glass replacements ("Plexiglass", "Lucite") - essential for direct solar-powered Martian agriculture.  Polycarbonate is another suitable material -- more impact resistant, also with good thermal IR blocking properties and high transparency, but which blocks instead of transmitting UV.  Polyethylene (HDPE and LDPE) is flexible, durable, and cheap, used in everything from tupperware to plastic wrap; similar plastic polypropylene shares its properties.  Polyurethane can be cast into hard, abrasion resistant parts or used as a sealant; its foam is also an excellent padding and insulating material. Teflon is an invaluable polymer in some parts of industry due to its incredible resistance to chemical corrosion.  Teflon coated containers are, for example, the only containers that can contain fluorine gas for an indefinite amount of time (although others have long lifespans).  PET is used in the synthetic fibers polyester, dacron, and terylene; due to its resistance to fluid permiation, it is used in plastic bottles and its film (Mylar) has a wide range of applications.  Kevlar is one of the strongest and most heat-resistant plastics in existence, although is quite expensive due to having to be spun from a concentrated sulfuric acid solution and having relatively complex monomers.

Epoxies -- needed for both their ability to bond objects together and their ability to form composites -- are simply thermoset plastics in which the catalyzing agent has not yet been added to the monomer (polyurethane is a common choice).  Composites are plastics formed around a matrix of another material, and optionally pressed and baked for better performance.  That matrix is usually either fiberglass (a spun ceramic), boron nitride fiber (made from borazine or cellulose), kevlar (spun from a sulfuric acid bath), or carbon fiber (anoxically heated PAN fiber) cloth.  

Plastics frequently contain other chemicals to alter its properties.  For example, hexagonal boron nitride increases thermal conductivity while decreasing electrical conductivity, and reduces surface friction with metals.  There are countless plasticizers, UV blockers, free radical scavengers, etc added to plastics made from all kinds of different materials.

Note that plastics are merely one class of petrochemical products.  

This daunting task can only be resolved by a tremendous and costly amount of engineering work done in advance of the mission.  Careful engineering could reduce the required number of plastics down to a couple dozen from the thousands available on Earth today.  However, if a colony were to be built to the spec of whatever is available here on Earth today, such colonies would not be maintainable or expandable on Mars.  Colonization must, therefore, wait until as much engineering is done as possible.  It is essential that engineers likewise design production infrastructure to be readily reconfigured to produce different chemicals, in a manner that is fully automated or requires a minimum of human intervention.  However, this poses challenges greater than anything we have described thusfar.

All in all, the engineering efforts involved in this stage will involve hundreds of thousands to millions of engineering man-years and hundreds of billions of dollars.  And we're not even done yet.

Turning chemicals to products

Just like elements != requisite chemicals, chemicals != finished products.  Thankfully, this situation, while nontrivial, isn't as onerous as establishing a chemical industry.

To produce bulk blocks, sheets, and other such shapes, metals and plastics must go through a casting house.  In here, they are placed into molds and/or extruded.  Often the process of casting involves heat removal, which is much simpler on Earth than on Mars.  Many casts are temporary and made of materials such as ceramics which are broken off the part when it is removed.  Other casts, especially when dealing with plastics, require coatings to prevent the plastic from adhering, some of which may be consumed in the process.  Some production processes are continuous, while others are in batch form.

One fortunate aspect available to a colony is reuse.  A single metal casting house can generally be used for casting multiple types of metals, so long as the molten metal can be brought to the casting house fast enough (or vice versa).  The similar can apply to plastics, albeit with different linings.  

Simply setting the materials is not enough.  Thin sheets and fibers must be assembled into reels; the core is a recycleable consumeable.  Large objects must be hoisted by crane into stacks on pallets or rail beds.  The various casting houses will need to manufacture are various sizes and shapes/thicknesses/lengths of  sheets, slabs, ingots and blooms, films, tubing, I-beams, and so forth.  This means many hundreds of raw materials for each part.

Fortunately for a colony, high volume is only needed for certain parts.  The incredibly broad diversity of parts needed for expansion and maintenance are for the most part low volume.  This leads to each of their parts being able to be produced through a variety of CNC machines and 3d printers.  In a CNC machine, a large chunk of the material to be worked is fed in and the computer carves the part.  An example of the impressive capabilities of such machines can be seen here.  3d printers work in the opposite manner, building up an object one layer at a time, often inside a structural matrix.  

Note that these technologies are generally known as rapid prototyping -- emphasis on the "prototyping".  Their time per unit, consumables, and energy consumption are much higher than that over dedicated production hardware.  But an early Mars colony simply cannot dedicate a piece of tooling for every part that it needs.  That will only come far down the road, when the demand supports the volumes.

Note that most components are not a single object; they are themselves made up of multiple parts.  Multi-axis robots will be used to the extent practicable, but some human work may still be required.  Note that on a Mars colony, human labor will be tremendously expensive since the resources to keep them alive are all so difficult to come by.

The final stage is distribution and installation of parts.  While distribution may be all or completely automated, and installation may in some cases be supported by machinery, the great number and diversity of parts will generally lend itself to human installation for most of them.

The silver lining

There is a silver lining to all of this.

First, the great engineering expense -- a total of hundreds of billions of dollars -- is met with great spinoff potential which, while likely not paying for all of the cost, may pay for a large chunk of it.

Secondly, the colony need not be immediately self-sufficient.  Things like electronics and solar cells can be expected to be imported for many decades after the colony is first manned, which ideally would not begin until decades after the engineering began in order to ensure that any hardware landed is compatable with the production capabilities that the colony will gain.  But once the materials and production hardware that will be available to the colony is well known, the production and delivery of the bulk construction materials has begun on the planet, and the tools for assembly are in place, humans can begin to colonize the Red Planet -- fully independent or not.

With each decade, the colony's required imports will drop by an order of magnitude.  And ultimately, the necessary connection with Earth will be severed.  When that day arises, we will truly be a two-planet species -- ready to spread to the stars, to better our lives and to become immune to extinction except by the slow process of the universe we know as Heat Death.

Should we achieve this fate, may we always be benevolent as we would wish others to be to us -- never terraforming away life just because it's simpler than us, and respecting the rights of any species we encounter.

Originally posted to Rei on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 05:21 PM PDT.

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

    •  Sorry to Miss the Time for Tipping You (0+ / 0-)

      This is a very impressive work, pulling together a lot of things. Thank you for sharing it.

      While it might not be consistent with your goal of not terraforming away life, it would probably make Mars a lot easier to live on if we worked first on it's atmosphere. We could do this by directing a few (well-chosen) comets it's way. That would add water and probably oxygen to the atmosphere, as well as making it thicker. It could also heat the planet a little and maybe even slow it down enough to bring it closer to the sun (depending on their trajectory).

      While this would not be a subtle way of doing it, it could make colonization much easier for humans.

      In any case, Mars seems like a logical next planet for humans in this solar system. Especially since it's "closest" competitor, Venus, seems like a burning hell by comparison.

      •  Venus is actually a.. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Liberal Thinking

        Surprisingly Earthlike place to colonize -- 52km up  ;)  But if you can't mine the surface, it becomes harder to justify colonizing in such a gravity well.

        Due to its Earthlike mineral diversity, among other reasons, Mars is probably the ideal place to start, followed by space.

        •  Asteroids First (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Rei

          That's true. I think maybe we should concentrate on the asteroids first. The main reason is that asteroids have so little gravity that anything you mine there can be sent other places in the solar system relatively cheaply. Also, comets would be a good place to look for resources, but they are generally so much farther away. Perhaps the moons around Jupiter and maybe Saturn are better locations--low gravity and relatively (compared to the Kuiper Belt) close by.

          I suspect that putting humans on Mars will eventually result in the total destruction of all indigenous life, if there is any. By adding water and other vapours to the atmosphere we could make it more suitable to humans, but it would destroy any local life. We should maybe spend our time while we increase our ability to exploit the asteroids doing extensive exploration of Mars just to see if we can find any signs of life and possibly preserve them before we make a serious human presence.

          Of course, I'm assuming humans last long enough as a species to do this. Considering all the challenges here at home, that's not a foregone conclusion.

  •  If you thought the Gulf was bad... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    aaraujo
    ...wait till you see what an oil spill looks like in the Van Allen Belts.
  •  Haven't finished reading yet (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    buddabelly, Rei

    but it looks fascinating and is a wonderful change of pace from the civil wars going on overhead. Will try to come back later.

    Like I said, I haven't finished it yet but automation and self-replicating machines can do a LOT of work.

    Cheers and thanks.

    "Reason is poor propaganda when opposed by the yammering unceasing lies of shrewd and evil and self serving men" R.A. Heinlein

    by Athenian on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 05:51:52 PM PDT

  •  Respecting simpler life (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cassandra Waites, Rei

    If we find microbial life on Mars, how does that impact our plans for a colony? Do we forget terraforming? Will our mere presence impact their development and eventual evolution to the .point where it is morally wrong to colonize or does our potential need to survive as a species trump the rights of microbes millions of years from sentient beings? Could we have a symbiotic relationship that might improve their lives and hasten their development?

    I am a big supporter of colonizing Mars but these questions do give me pause.

    From the ashes we can build another day.

    by onig on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 06:10:32 PM PDT

    •  I think it's perfectly fair to colonize... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      linkage

      but not to terraform, and only IF we think we can effectively avoid contaminating the Martian environment with life from Earth (i.e., we discover that Martian bacteria outcompete Earth bacteria, or whatnot).  

  •  Possibly too technical (5+ / 0-)

    for me right now but I like your ending.

    I stand by my point though that automation and self-replicating machines (not necessarily nano) will be able to work miracles.

    Clarke said that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Someday we will play Quidditch over a green and blue Mars.  

    Amen brother and cheers again.

    "Reason is poor propaganda when opposed by the yammering unceasing lies of shrewd and evil and self serving men" R.A. Heinlein

    by Athenian on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 06:15:25 PM PDT

  •  nicely done tipped and recced............. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    linkage
  •  Thank You - N/T (0+ / 0-)

    "Upward, not Northward" - Flatland, by EA Abbott

    by linkage on Wed Jun 16, 2010 at 07:54:50 PM PDT

  •  How do you get over the payload vs. fuel problem? (0+ / 0-)

    An added pound of payload mandates additional fuel, which mandates storage, which mandates additional structure, which mandates more fuel...

    It's one thing to orbit a satellite, or even a space station.  The "stuff" required to set up a colony on Mars would require an enormous spacelift effort just to get it out of Earth's atmosphere.

    It isn't just a lift of raw materials, it is also a lift of the spacecraft fleet required to move some serious tonnage from Earth to Mars.  I could see using something like ion drive once on the Mars mission, but the Earth-to-orbit leg will be chemical rocketry (until something better comes along).

    There is also a moral dilemma:  who pays for this?  A Mars colony would by nature be composed of a small group of elite scientists and technicians.  However, the bill would be paid by a horde of people who would:

    1.  Foot the bill with no hope of a return on their investment
    1.  Part with some major resources for a period of decades from an already depleted planet

    The "left behinders" get screwed on this deal.

    •  See my first diary in the series. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      KenBee

      Link.  Also, for who pays, see the third diary in the series -- Link.  Heck, might as well just read them all.   :)

    •  Earth-to-orbit leg a definite problem, so less (0+ / 0-)

      mass from earth = better.

      Strategies like using the moon as a source for important little goodies like fuel, oxygen, and water can radically reduce the mass that must be sent into space.

      At 1/6 the earth's gravity, the 19-1 fuel to payload ratio for earth-based launches becomes more like 2-1 or less once all of the engineering ripple-throughs (ie, smaller rockets to propel a given mass, no need to streamline, no need to blast through a thick atmosphere, etc) are taken into account.

      And, of course, to the extent that the same can be done on Mars, no need to take materials with you.

      As to a moral dilemma, every day on earth is just jam-packed with moral dilemmas if you really want to find them.

      Why waste money on medical care for the elderly? The return is much smaller than similar care for the young, and just prolongs the burden old people place on society.

      Why waste any educational funding on the arts when we need more engineers, scientists and agricultural researchers?

      Why develop drugs for diseases that afflict only a small number of people?

      Etc.

      And, oh yeah -- most explorations in the history of our planet benefited only a few people at first, or, like antarctic expeditions, provided little in the way of tangible benefits at all.

      Down the road, however, some of them pay off.

      Free speech? Yeah, I've heard of that. Have you?

      by dinotrac on Thu Jun 17, 2010 at 10:08:34 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Good info regarding manufacturing in space (0+ / 0-)

        However, dragging whether or not we should let sick children and old people die from poor health care is not really relevant to the issue because each of us starts out as a child and--God willing--ends up elderly.  Therefore the potential to benefit from health care investment is quite real, unlike the chances one could be a participant in a Mars colonization effort.

        Your most relevant example was that of early scientific explorations, many of which were privately funded.  It should be noted that these explorations returned some tangible benefits:

        1.  Civic pride in achievement
        1.  Expansion of society's body of knowledge
        1.  In the case of taxpayer funded efforts like the Lewis and Clark expedition, the payoff was both tangible and incalculable.

        Those could apply to a Mars colonization effort.  But we're talking about an effort so large in scope that taxation is likely the only way to pay for it.  The question goes beyond "return on investment"; it's entirely possible that the effort permanently harms the society that funds it.

        Does this mean "don't do it"?  Nope.  However a major goal should be to develop technology that is capable of moving masses of people rather than an elite cadre.

        This ties directly to the question of whether or not to terra-form due to the volume of living space needed for a mass migration.  At any rate, a few dome-based colonies are probably too risky over the long term to justify the investment.  An atmosphere solves both the living space and risk exposure questions quite handily.

        •  No, taxation is not the only way. (0+ / 0-)

          See diary #3.  And yes, I think there's a pretty strong case that a serious Mars colonization effort would be at least as likely to pay off as a disease research program of similar magnitude.  The amount of new engineering processes that would come about as a result and the dramatic reduction in launch costs should have a profound impact on Earth as well.

  •  This diary series is really cool! n/t (0+ / 0-)
  •  Beyond unrealistic (0+ / 0-)

    All discussion of interplanetary travel that seeks to be realistic has to confront first the fundamental physical problems - the large distances involved and the enormous energetic requirements to get a vehicle to cross them at the speeds necessary for returns in humanly manageable time spans.

    Any reasonably efficient trip to Mars will take at least several months. Improvements can be made, but not to the order of magnitude of the travel time. There's physically no way to get Mars in 3 days, and there never will be (one can't travel faster than light, even theoretically, and traveling at anything near the speed of light would simply rip a human body up).

    Colonizing Mars is not even remotely feasible, and trying to do it would just be huge waste of resources that would be better dedicated to any number of other engineering projects.

    If one looks at the engineering problems involved in manned space flight, it is notable that there have passed some decades since any person was sent to the Moon. In part this is because it's a waste of money. Nothing much of scientific value is obtained (at least not relative to the enormous expenditure) and there is the real risk of losing lives.

    Folks worry about putting gas in cars - but it seems a lot of folks have never thought about how much fuel it takes to get a rocket in orbit.

    •  Beyond short-sighted (0+ / 0-)

      a more formalized response will come soon

    •  3 days, 3 months, 3 years -- not an issue. (0+ / 0-)

      People will line up coast to coast either way.

      Feasibility of colonizing Mars is what was discussed in tthis diary.  Care to raise any specifics?

      Re. Cost: see the first diary in the series.

      Re, distraction: see the third diary in this series.

      •  Specifics (0+ / 0-)

        The fundamental difficulty, which I mentioned in my original post, is the time involved in space travel. The distances are so large, and the speeds at which vehicles can viably carry humans so slow (!) that there is essentially no possibility of reducing these times to something economically viable. Anything beyond Mars is certainly impossible (I don't mean we lack the technical expertise - I mean it's an impossibility - we have a quite solid understanding of the basic physics governing space at the relevant scales - and there's simply no way to reduce the travel times to anything viable). With Mars one is realistically talking about travel times on the order of half years or years, and one should consider seriously whether a two year round trip is even feasible - but in any case, here I am only talking about a small, light (! like an Apollo) vehicle. If one wants to transport any substantial quantity of material to say the moon, or Mars, the fundamental difficulty is getting the material into orbit - that takes an enormous energetic input (a boatload of fuel) - and again, there's no way around the need for a huge energetic input. One can imagine nuclear powered rockets, but I think that's a non-starter for all sorts of not only scientific reasons (if it blows up on the launch pad?). If all one is talking about is building something like a space station, then it's feasible to get the material into orbit (that's a long way from `colonizing'), but one still has to get it there safely and assemble it there, etc...

        Whoever first goes to Mars is going knowing he has a serious possibility of not coming back.

        One should think that no human has stepped even on the moon in decades (though some Chinese astronaut probably will within the coming decade). It's a technically monstrous enterprise, requiring the dedication of a lot of resources and talent that, frankly, would be better dedicated to other things, like cleaning up oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, and guaranteeing the safety of deep sea oil drilling.

        •  Re: Specifics (0+ / 0-)

          The fundamental difficulty, which I mentioned in my original post, is the time involved in space travel. The distances are so large, and the speeds at which vehicles can viably carry humans so slow (!) that there is essentially no possibility of reducing these times to something economically viable.

          Why does time = economic viability?  You're asserting this but not defending it.

          Typical backpacking foods contain 1,000 to 3,000 calories per pound.  Let's go with 2,000.  ISS astronauts consume about 3,000 calories a day, primarily because they exercise so much to prevent them from getting too much atrophy to return to Earth.  Mars is a one-way trip for a colonist.  But let's go with 3,000 calories a day -- that's 1.5lbs/day.  Let's say a 6 month voyage, the typical number used for Mars trips (I have no clue where you're getting 1.5 years from -- even a straight Hohmann Transfer is 9 months).  VASIMR could get humans to Mars in six weeks, but we're trying to be pessimistic here, so we'll go with six months.  That's 1.5lbs * 6 * 30 = 270lbs -- barely more than the weight of the astronaut.

          Water is recycled.  Let's say that you need to replace 5% of what the astronauts consume daily.  An astronaut on the ISS consumes 2.7 liters of water daily. That's 0.3lbs needing replacement per day, or 54 pounds.

          O2 on the shuttle (I assume the ISS as well) is primarily produced through the RCRC -- the Regenerative Carbon Dioxide Removal System.  Let's again assume that you need to replace 5% of what they consume daily to make up for losses.  Astronauts consume about 2lbs of oxygen a day, so you'd need to replace 0.1lbs per day, or 18 pounds.

          There will be miscellaneous consumables associated with people.  But all in all, you're looking at under double their body mass.  Still well less than the overhead mass from the spacecraft itself.

          This all assumes a 6-month voyage, rather than the 6-week voyage VASIMR could provide.  VASIMR is real tech, by the way, not some hypothetical -- a full-scale version has already been built, it works great in the lab, and they're going to be attaching it to the ISS for reboosting soon.

          Where, exactly, are you seeing a problem here?

          If one wants to transport any substantial quantity of material to say the moon, or Mars, the fundamental difficulty is getting the material into orbit - that takes an enormous energetic input (a boatload of fuel)

          How many times should I tell you to read the first diary in this series?

          Whoever first goes to Mars is going knowing he has a serious possibility of not coming back.

          First off, technically, it only takes one woman and some frozen sperm to make a viable colony.   But the reality is that you'll have people lined up coast to coast to go.  There never, no matter how experimental the rocket and how low the odds of return, has been a shortage of people volunteering (or offering their money) to go into space.  This is a planet with a huge number of idealists, and even 0.001% of the population equals 60,000 people.

          It's a technically monstrous enterprise, requiring the dedication of a lot of resources and talent that, frankly, would be better dedicated to other things, like cleaning up oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, and guaranteeing the safety of deep sea oil drilling.

          Once again, please read diary 3.  

          Please don't come back here arguing about launch costs or who would fund and why without reading them.  I'm not going to cut and paste entire diaries because you won't follow a link.

  •  remarkable - an absolutely fascinating account (0+ / 0-)

    reading this i couldn't help but think that the engineering challenge you've outlined will be very similar to the one needed to rescue ourselves from our man-made eco-tastrophe here on earth in the next 100 years or so.

    Another idea I'll put to you is the question of the technological revolution of the ultra small currently underway. Your work here defines the engineering feat in terms of currently established industrial practices. might a rapid evolution in molecular engineering take the place of "millions of man hours"?

    a pleasure to read this, thanks!

    Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny. -- The Bad Speech

    by Green Bean on Fri Jun 18, 2010 at 07:11:35 PM PDT

    •  "Revolution of the ultra-small" (0+ / 0-)

      There is a lot of confusion over "nanotechnology" versus "nanomachines".

      When the science of nanotechnology began to emerge, much of the popular focus was on nanoomachines.  They envisioned ting, self-replicating devices which would perform all sorts of virtually magical feats for us.

      While the science of nanotechnology has advanced by leaps and bounds, nanomachines have not.  It turns out that it's not just as hard to make a nanoscale self-replicator as it is a larger one -- it's actually harder.  The same goes for nanominers, nanofactories, etc.

      Where nanotech has succeeded -- tremendously -- is in opening up whole new classes of chemicals and reactions to us.  Extreme conductivity.  Super-strength.  Anti-bacterial activity.  Etc.  In bulk, gold, for example, is yellow and inert.  At the right scale of nnosphere, however, it's red and highly reactive.  Nanotech is giving us better batteries, better solar cells, better computers, etc.

      •  yes, but you're talking about (0+ / 0-)

        the first phase of micromechanics - changes in properties of materials and surfaces and etc. We're still tinkering at the edges, trying to get deeper into the practical science of molecular engineering.

        Sure, hype is always a little misguided, and magazines described personal microbots swarming the blodstream, fixing things and etc to sell copy. While it is true that nano-fabrications - self replication, molecular design, etc is still an infant science, there is no theoretical barrier to its continued progress. Human beings, and all life for that matter, are a testament to that fact. For example our machines of production are likely to look more like biological organisms in the future than warehouse factories or chemical plants.

        While I don't admire the idea of magic in science, I do appreciate that our current materials and fabrication technology is going to undergo a very rapid transformation as our tools and ability to design at the micro and nano scale progresses. Currently this is most visible in communications/computer science, but it is rapidly moving into bio-medical engineering and from there on down to energy/materials/fabrication/production. There is incredible danger and power in it. I do think it is likely to make colonization of space feasible more quickly than we currently imagine, as long as it doesn't kill us in some terrifying way first.

        Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny. -- The Bad Speech

        by Green Bean on Sat Jun 19, 2010 at 08:33:47 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Barriers (0+ / 0-)

          Sure, there is no theoretical barrier to the progress of nanomachines.  But there is no theoretical barrier to the progress of macro-scale machines, either.  And those are easier to design and build, and generally operate in an easier environment (some things like engines and motion are dramatically harder to accomplish in the incredibly small scale -- the latter primarily due to huge relative viscosity).  If the question is "What does nano get you in regards to machines", the primary answer is "more trouble."  Mechanics becomes trouble at very small scales.  Chemistry doesn't necessarily become "miraculous", but it does become "different" -- and some sorts of "different" are very good.

          Nanomachines do exist.  We call them cells.  They're incredibly complex because it takes incredible complexity to run a nanoscale self-replicator.  Whether you're talking biological or mechanical, the same thing will apply.  

          One of my favorite examples of what nanotech can give us is that of the "digital quantum battery" (actually capacitor).  Quantum physics makes lots of interesting things happen at tiny scales.  One of them is the quantization of charge.  At large scales, current seems to be something that can vary by a sizable scope, but when you're dealing with tiny amounts of it in tiny wires, it can only flow in "quanta" -- individual units of charge.  The digital quantum battery proposal involves an array of nanoscale capacitors.  Normally a phenminon called dielectric breakdown causes capacitors to spark across a gap before the current becomes to significant.  But on the nanoscale, you can't spark across a gap until you have a single quanta of electricity.  So the voltage differential can become dramatically different, and thus far more energy can be stored.

          Nanomachines are a complete misdirection when it comes to nanotech.  They're harder to build and suffer from many disadvantages than their macroscale competitors.  What nanotech is providing us with is "super-materials" and "new reactions".  Not machines.  Absolutely these will help us.  But they will not perform miraculous feats.  They just, in general, mean that you need less of them than of their counterparts to get the equivalent benefit.  Less mass of structural materials.  Fewer batteries.  Fewer solar cells.  Etc.

          •  heh (0+ / 0-)

            I'm not sure you read my post very well. that's OK.

            i don't differentiate between a cell and a nano-machine, in except that the one is the result of billions of years of organic evolution, and the other we make ourselves. To say that nano-machines are a dead end is foolish. Yes, we are learning how to change materials' properties with nano-adjustments, but we're also learning how to manipulate cells to do what we want them to, and we're also building micro-machines, and will eventually build nano-machines. As you point out, cells are a kind of nano-machine, and the seem to work in spite of the problems of viscosity. Do you think there is no advantage to building our own kinds of cells, possibly to generate electricity, hydrogen, water, carbon fiber, or organic molecules on Mars?

            Yes, we will build nano-machines. We will build cells that are part machine and visa versa. We will build organic computers. We will alter materials' properties by making changes at the nano-scale. We will also build macro machines, and everything else in between. My original expression of interest was in the idea that materials fabrication would advance more rapidly than we currently project because of nano and micro sciences. I don't see much point in arguing over whether nano-machines are feasible, or whether they are different than cells. They obviously are. Cheers.

            Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny. -- The Bad Speech

            by Green Bean on Sun Jun 20, 2010 at 02:41:24 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  I didn't catch that you were talking about cells (0+ / 0-)

              Rather than nanomachines; my apologies.

              Yes,nwe can get cells to produce chemicals, but there are significant limitations to it.  One, each chemical  still needs its own complex production line: growth, exraction, purification, etc.  Think of it this way: we've known how to make oil from algae for nearly a century.  But we don't -- why?  It takes a huge amount of area (and thus hardware needing maintenance) for a little output.  The output is overwhelmingly water, which takes a lot of energy and hardware to remove.  The product is mixed in with a lot of non-product.  And the algae tend to get contaminated with non-target species,  ruining the process.  They're not very good for producing solids.  They're inefficient.  Many chemicals we rely on are poisonous to life.  For many chemicals, such as industrial acids, there is often more challenge in concentration and purification than initial production, which cells make worse.  And all sorts of other problems.

              The main thing we use cells to produce (with the exception of ethanol) are complex biochemicals.  When you can afford to have lots of overhead and inputs, there's no easier route, and you only need a little bit, genetically engineered microbes are often used.  A good example of this is medicine.  The one big counterexample is ethanol, since it's such a simple process.  Note that in virtually all cases, the input is sugar, not sunlight, to keep the hardware overhead down.  That's even more important on Mars.  Then again, so is keeping greenhouse space down.

              That's not to say that biochemicals have no role; far from in.  In my paper on the subject, I cover a lot of the roles various biochemicals will play on Mars -- especially for medicine, but also certain plastics, lubricants, etc.  But they don't replace industry, nor do they help with mining, transportation, fabrication, or assembly.

              •  very interesting information (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                Rei

                thank you for taking the time to talk with me.

                It makes sense to talk about cells when we're talking about colonizing Mars because i imagine every process of industry, mining, transporations, fabrication, food production, etc would take place in 'cells', much more so than they already do here on earth. I suppose these cells will be quite modular, and able to exchange information and material, and will primarily exist to prepare for or support 'cells' inhabited by human beings, themselves made of cells.

                I am interested in the material and processes that will make this possible. I do believe that micro and nano scale fabrication and processes will accelerate the myriad complex components and materials necessary for creating these 'cells'. The future is quite overwhelmingly exciting and scary.

                cheers!

                Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny. -- The Bad Speech

                by Green Bean on Mon Jun 21, 2010 at 12:35:12 PM PDT

                [ Parent ]

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site