Professor Dick Kiefer leads the way in Mars-friendly building materials
By Megan Rhyne, Special to the W&M News
After 35 years of dedicated service to the College, countless lectures, hundreds of student-teacher conferences and scores of faculty meetings, it’s all come down to this for Professor of Chemistry Richard Kiefer: chocolate candy. Candy bars to be specific, and a particular brand to be exact.
Mars Bars.
With human exploration of Mars within reach, Kiefer, in conjunction with Sheila Thibeault of the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, has been developing materials that future travelers will use for protection against the harsh radiation that bombards the Red Planet. Kiefer’s former and current students have joined in, working to find just the right mixture of soil, similar to what would be found on Mars’ surface, and polyethylene — the common polymer found in plastic shopping bags — to mold, heat and press into smooth, dark gray building blocks.
Based on the appearance of the prototypes, Kiefer’s innovation could more accurately be called Mars tiles, but the moniker Mars Bars, coined by someone in the Office of External Affairs at NASA, has stuck. A radio station in Charlottesville was the first to be captivated. The aunt of the student currently involved in the project, senior Ryan McGlothlin, passed on news of her nephew’s work to the producers of With Good Reason, which recorded a show.
The Virginia Associated Press got wind of the story and sent out a wire article that was picked up by state newspapers. But that’s not all. The story wound up on ABC’s Web site, where someone with the Oak Ridge (Tennessee) National Laboratory read it and contacted Kiefer to "start a dialogue." Kiefer met with a crew from SAT.1, a German television station, on Aug. 24, once and for all confirming that KieferÌs work has local, national, international and galactic appeal.
Kiefer himself is rather amused at all the attention Mars Bars are receiving. Undoubtedly, it is the most notoriety the mild-mannered professor’s research has garnered. It is not necessarily the most significant, or practical, however, or even the only collaboration in which he and NASA are involved.
Combating atomic oxygen is one such ongoing project. When the space shuttle or the international space station orbits the earth, it is bombarded by atomic oxygen. Atomic oxygen reacts so readily with materials that the tubes linking sections of the space station would erode to half their normal strength over a 10-year period if not protected. Kiefer and his students have been putting additives into polymers to make them resistant to erosion by atomic oxygen. These additives work by interacting with atomic oxygen to form a protective coating that prevents further erosion. Next June, samples of these materials will be sent to the international space station for a one-year exposure to test their effectiveness.
But for now the attention is on the Mars Bars. Like any good cook, Kiefer and McGlothlin will have to figure out the right ratio of components to produce bricks with the optimum properties. They’ll also have to determine whether a mortar made from the same soil can be created to connect the bricks.
"We’re still at the stage of feasibility," says Kiefer. "What happens when you stack several bricks on top of each other? Will they crumble? Then the next thing is to ask if it’s feasible to take that much material with you into space, and if so, how?"
Until that time comes, and earthlings become Martians, Kiefer will keep studying these questions. He’ll keep introducing his students to the NASA scientists and driving them down to the NASA labs. He’ll keep giving lectures on polymers and cosmic rays. And every once in a while, he’ll probably snack on a well-known candy bar with an amused smile.
IMAGE CAPTION: [] Professor of Chemistry Dick Kiefer (left) and senior Ryan McGlothlin show off a couple of "Mars Bars" in their lab.