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PISCES studying new uses for lava rock

Hawaii residents are no strangers to walking on lava rock.

But a project the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems is planning could have them looking at it in a whole new way.

To make trips to the moon and Mars more sustainable, the Hilo-based group is researching how to turn regolith on both planetary bodies into usable material.

The material is similar to the basaltic rock that comprises the islands, and PISCES Executive Director Rob Kelso said it can be used for both building materials as well as to make fuel.

To demonstrate this potential, Kelso said PISCES is planning to build a sidewalk essentially out of lava rock.

He said PISCES would use a 3-D printer that it has ordered to combine basaltic dust with a binding material to form a hard surface.

Kelso said it is partnering with Hawaii County Public Works Department on the demonstration project in March. A location has not been selected.

Public Works Director Warren Lee couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

“This is leading pioneering work,” Kelso said. “We’re really excited about it.”

PISCES has numerous other projects in the works, most of which require additional state funding. Its main funding bill before the state Legislature seeks over $1.3 million.

The group formed at the University of Hawaii at Hilo but is now under the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Funding so far has mostly covered salaries and other operational costs, Kelso said, but the research team is ready to get some of its projects underway.

One of them is a “robotic village,” which would demonstrate how rovers could extract regolith and, with the help of other machines, turn it into fuel or other material that it can use.

Some call the approach “dust to thrust” or “rocks to blocks.” Kelso refers to it as “living off the land.”

“If a part breaks, you can’t send a repair mission,” he said. “But if it has a 3-D printer, it can scoop up some regolith and it could in theory be able to repair itself.”

One project would give Hawaii high school students a chance to participate in an actual space mission.

Kelso said he has agreements with two teams competing for the Google Lunar XPRIZE to include a student project on their trips to the moon.

That project would involve the use of an electrostatic grid to keep lunar dust off the equipment. He said that is something students can put together, and he is hoping to get three Hawaii high schools to get involved.

“There has never been a student experiment to the moon,” Kelso said.

“So I’m trying to get the very first … on the surface.”

Other projects include test site development and an international robotics mining competition.

Email Tom Callis at


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