Irish-led research turns waste product into useful nanomaterial

21 Dec 2023

Image: © Siarhei/

The researchers took what was considered a waste product from NASA and turned it into a material that has various applications, such as clean fuel or building materials on Mars.

New research could help humanity build on Mars in the future and create eco-friendly breakthroughs on Earth.

The research looked at nanomaterials – tiny components thousands of times smaller than a human hair – which have the potential to be used for clean energy production and building materials on Mars.

The researchers claim they used resources and techniques currently applied on the International Space Station to take anhydrite – which is considered waste material by NASA – and turn it into a useful nanomaterial.

The study was led by Irishman Dr Conor Boland, a lecturer in the University of Sussex and a former commercialisation research fellow of Science Foundation Ireland’s AMBER research centre.

“This study shows that the potential is quite literally out of this world for nanomaterials,” Boland said. “Our study builds off recent research performed by NASA and takes what was considered waste, essentially lumps of rock, and turns it into transformative nanomaterials for a range of applications, from creating clean hydrogen fuel to developing an electronic device similar to a transistor to creating an additive to textiles to increase their robustness.”

The material – anhydrite – is a byproduct that is made by NASA researchers when they extract water from martian gypsum, which is dehydrated by the agency to get water for human consumption.

Boland and his team processed anhydrite into nanobelts –  or tagliatelle-shaped materials – and said this demonstrates the potential to use anhydrite to provide clean energy and sustainable electronics. The researchers also said that water could be continuously collected and recycled at every step of the process.

“We are optimistic about the feasibility of this process on Mars, as it requires only naturally occurring materials – everything we used could, in theory, be replicated on the red planet,” Boland said. “Arguably this is the most important goal in making the Martian colony sustainable from the outset.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic