Page 41 - Penn State Civil and Environmental Engineering Magazine
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 Collins receives
 two NASA
By Tim Schley
Peter Collins, a civil engineering doctoral candidate, recently received a three-
year NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunity (NSTGRO) and
a one-year Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium NASA Graduate Fellowship to study how concrete can be developed in space.
“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,” Collins said.
In 2019, NASA introduced the Artemis program, the organization’s commitment to establishing a sustainable exploration presence on the moon and eventually, Mars. To accomplish this feat, astronauts will need to build resilient structures away from Earth—likely using concrete, the most widely used construction material
in the world, according to the American Concrete Institute.
Collins is a member of the Concrete Research Group at Penn State, led
by Aleksandra Radlińska, associate professor of civil engineering. The group’s ongoing project, Microgravity Investigation of Cement Solidification (MICS), investigates how concrete, typically made with a mixture of small
rocks, sand, water, and Portland cement, solidifies under different gravitational forces.
“I cannot thank Dr. Radlińska enough
for her continued support and the opportunity to work on such remarkable research,” Collins said.
Through its partnership with NASA,
the MICS team sent a variety of
cement mixtures to the International Space Station (ISS) to be mixed and solidified. The samples were returned and compared with identical mixtures developed on Earth. The researchers found that cement’s solidification reaction and resultant microstructure is dependent on the level of gravity.
Collins plans to continue this research through his fellowships by sending additional samples to the ISS. These samples will be used to develop a new
concrete mixture that uses more materials found on the moon’s surface while also maintaining concrete’s current strength and durability levels.
“Thus far, our work
has focused on
mostly Earth-based cementitious systems,” Collins said. “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.”
As part of the NSTGRO program, Collins has been matched with Richard Grugel, a materials scientist with NASA and investigator on the MICS project, via
the program’s “visiting technologist experience.” Together, they will have the opportunity to perform their research at a NASA center each year and collaborate with other relevant engineers and scientists.
“This will allow me to gain a deeper understanding of what NASA is trying to accomplish and is the best way for me to make sure the project reaches its fullest potential,” Collins said.
The research may also pay dividends
on Earth. Collins said even though concrete is widely used in today’s society, questions remain regarding its solidification reaction. Studying how concrete hardens in unique gravitational environments and experimenting
with new mixtures could lead to enhancements in its strength and durability for terrestrial applications.
“A small improvement in the material could result in a large impact on Earth,” Collins said.
Collins received a bachelor’s degree
in civil engineering from Utah State University in 2018 and a master’s degree in civil engineering from Penn State in 2019. He was recently named a Mark E. and Claire L. Alpert Graduate Fellow for 2020 and awarded the American Society of Civil Engineers Central PA Section 2019 Student Award.
  A scanning electron microscope image of a concrete sample falsely- colored to highlight the “lunar regolith simulant” in a hydrated Portland cement matrix. IMAGE: CONCRETE RESEARCH GROUP

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