Regolith, The “Other” Lunar Resource

In civil engineering, one of the most important material resources on Earth is “construction aggregate” – the sand, gravel and cement building materials that make up the infrastructure of modern industrial life.  Aggregate is easily one of the biggest, most valuable economic resources of all mined terrestrial materials – more so than gold, diamonds, or platinum.  We depend on aggregates for many different types of objects; they are the fundamental building block of roads and structures.  The use of aggregates in building goes back to ancient civilizations; concrete was used in buildings of ancient Egypt.  The Romans devised a recipe for a concrete so durable that the molded arches, walls and self-supporting dome of the Pantheon (made over 2000 years ago) stand today.  Aggregates in terrestrial use typically depend on a lime-based cement that bonds the particulate material together.  Both lime (CaO) and abundant water are needed to make concrete on Earth.

On this blog and elsewhere I have detailed the importance and significance of water at the poles of the Moon.  Water is indeed the most important early product to produce from lunar materials but there are other resources on the Moon.  A permanent presence on the Moon will require infrastructure that must by necessity use as much local material as possible.  Aggregate materials probably will become the primary building blocks of industrial society off planet, just as it has on the Earth.  The composition and conditions of local materials will require some adjustments as to how we use lunar aggregate.  A little thought reveals some interesting parallels and differences with terrestrial use.

On Earth, gravel pits are carefully located to take advantage of the sorting and layering produced by natural fluvial (river water-eroded) activity.  We harvest gravels from alluvial plains and old river beds, where running water has concentrated rocks, sand and silt into deposits that can be easily excavated, loaded, and transported to sites of construction.  The highly variable currents, as well as the velocities of flow of our terrestrial streams and rivers, sort the aggregate by size, creating layers of gravel-sized up to cobble-sized stones for the fastest flowing waters.  Finer grained material is likewise concentrated where water speeds are low and sand and silt settles out from the suspended sediment (the “bed load”).

No natural process on the Moon creates such deposits, but the lunar surface rock has already been disaggregated by impact into a chaotic upper surface layer called regolith.  Regolith is basically ground-up bedrock; impacts of all sizes constantly pummel the surface, breaking, fracturing and grinding up the Moon’s bedrock.  Impact both breaks up and creates rock.  An impact will destroy a rock both by shock (catastrophic rupture) and through cratering (fragmentation and excavation).  The effect of such destruction is to make “soil,” fine-grained rocky material made up of the mineral grains of the bedrock.  But impact also creates heat and this heat can weld small fragments into glass-rich aggregate rocks (regolith breccias) as well as quickly cooled fragments of melt that contain mineral inclusions (agglutinates, or glass).  In broad terms, impacts destroy and disaggregate more than they create and weld together.  Thus, on a given surface, regolith thickness increases with time – older surfaces have thicker regoliths.

The ground up regolith is a readily available building material for construction on the lunar surface.  It is an aggregate in the same sense as on Earth, but with some significant differences.  We could make lime and water from the surface materials of the Moon but it is very time and energy intensive.  Thus, we must adapt and modify terrestrial practice to take advantage of the unique nature of lunar materials.  The fractal grain size in the regolith means that we can obtain any specific size fraction we want through mechanical sorting (raking and sieving).  Instead of water-set lime-based cement, we can use glass to cement particulate material together.  Regolith can be sintered into bricks and blocks, as well as roads and landing pads, using thermal energy (passive solar, concentrated by focusing mirrors) or microwaves that can melt grain edges into a hard, durable ceramic.

The use of aggregate materials on the Moon will likely be gradual and incremental.  Our initial presence on the Moon will be supported almost entirely by materials and supplies brought from Earth.  As we gain facility using lunar resources, we can incorporate more and more local materials into structures.  Simple, unmodified bulk soil is an early useful product.  It can be used to build berms to protect an outpost from the rocket blast of arriving or departing spacecraft and to cover surface assets for thermal and radiation protection.  The next phase will be to pave roads and pads to keep down randomly thrown dust and provide good traction for the multitude of wheeled vehicles supporting the outpost.  Fabrication of bricks from regolith will allow us to construct large buildings, initially consisting of open, unpressurized workspaces and garages but ultimately, habitats and laboratories.  Making glass by melting regolith can produce building materials of extreme strength and durability; anhydrous glass made from lunar soil is stronger than alloy steel with a fraction of its mass.

Eventually, we may be able to export these lunar building materials into space.  A major drawback is the gravity well of the Moon – its escape velocity is about 2.38 km/s, smaller than that of the Earth but substantial.  To use large quantities of lunar materials for space construction, we need to develop an inexpensive means to get material off its surface.  Fortunately, the small size and no atmosphere of the Moon make this possible by literally throwing stuff off the Moon into space.  A “mass driver” can launch objects off the lunar surface by accelerating them along a rail track using electromagnetic coils that hurl capsulated material into space at specific velocities and directions.  We can collect such thrown material at a convenient location, such as one of the libration points.  From there, it is a relatively simple matter to send the material to wherever it is needed in cislunar space.

Water remains the most important first lunar product, but the “other” lunar material regolith is almost as important.  Lunar rock and soil will be the paving stones of the Solar System.  As once all roads led to Rome, all new roads in cislunar space lead to – and from – the Moon.

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