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There's plenty of iron oxide available on the surface of Mars--that's why it's called the Red Planet. So colonists would have no trouble getting ahold of iron for building stuff.

The problem is, iron's a lousy structural material. It bends too easily and it corrodes too easily. (Particularly on Mars, apparently!) Steel is a much better choice, but to make steel you need coal as well as iron, and from all we know about science, it's highly unlikely that coal deposits (or any other fossil fuel) will be found on Mars.

So what would be the most efficient way for a Martian colony establish heavy industry and infrastructure? Ship in steel from Earth by rocket? Ship in coal from Earth by rocket and build steel locally? Mine for other structural materials such as aluminum and titanium? Assume today's technology level, plus a little bit more that allows us to actually send people to Mars and keep them alive for an indefinite period.

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  • $\begingroup$ You don't need coal to make steel from iron, you just need to add carbon to iron. Burning coal is just one way of doing that, but it is the primary way. $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Aug 27 '15 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre: OK, to be pedantic, you need industrial-scale quantities of reasonably pure carbon to alloy with the iron. If it's not coal it would have to be something very similar, that you're not likely to find laying around on (or beneath) Mars. $\endgroup$ Aug 27 '15 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ What sort of Heavy Industry do you want to set up/support? The martian colony itself will likely be akin to pressurised tents... $\endgroup$ Aug 27 '15 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ @ScottDowney: Basically the sort of stuff we have here, plus as the colony expands you'd want factories that can produce the raw materials with which to construct new domes for other settlements... $\endgroup$ Aug 27 '15 at 15:04
  • $\begingroup$ Iron rusts in an oxygen rich atmosphera. Anything build with iron in Mars exterior will not rust, you may have issues with it inside habitats though. Also, ceramics. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Aug 27 '15 at 20:49
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Don't build up. Dig down.

Mars has light gravity. That's very beneficial for this - it makes it easier to remove materials, and it makes it easier to keep underground areas structurally sound (less weight on top). Layers of rock and dirt also give you better radiation protection.

While you still need structural materials in this case - for support, air pressure, and comfort - you need a lot less of it. Creating steel just needs iron + carbon, or you could potentially have even more exotic materials like inflated graphene. (composed purely of carbon, inflated to give it rigid strength). If graphene is too far out for you, you could still build using other inflatable materials (think layered kevlar or something of that nature).

Note that you can obtain carbon from the atmosphere (CO₂) or there is apparently dry ice frozen at the poles.

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As mentioned on a similar (but not identical) question that I can't seem to find, utilizing that iron to create steel is problematic. Even if you were to ship fossil fuels to mars (solar film is lighter and lasts longer) there is no oxygen to fuel combustion so really it would just be a black pile of rocks.

In short, creating steel on Mars is going to require fuel and air be shipped from earth...so completely cost prohibitive.

Other metals would be a better choice.

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  • $\begingroup$ Are you thinking of this question? $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Aug 27 '15 at 14:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre YES! Thanks, couldn't remember what the topic was... $\endgroup$
    – James
    Aug 27 '15 at 14:57
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    $\begingroup$ You don't need the coal to burn it; you need the coal to alloy with the iron. The power to heat up the furnace would obviously come from solar power on Mars, but you still need lots of carbon to mix into the iron. $\endgroup$ Aug 27 '15 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ Sure but you are still going to be burning a lot of oxygen in the smelting process wouldn't you? $\endgroup$
    – James
    Aug 27 '15 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ As I understand it, smelting iron is more than just a process of heating ore. You need to somehow transfer the oxygen from the iron oxide to another molecule. The carbon reacts chemically to produce elemental iron. To make steel you then have to reduce the amount of carbon left in the iron. The easiest way is to burn off all of the carbon and then add just the right amount to make steel. The hard way is to hit it with hammers until the consistency seems about right. $\endgroup$ Aug 27 '15 at 15:37
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It depends on what sort of industry you want? Infrastructure is actually easy, dig down and use the local material to make bricks, then line the underground tunnels and chambers with brick "vaults" to use the compressive strength of the bricks to support enough soil overhead to block radiation.

In the 21rst century and beyond, what is thought of as "heavy" industry will probably be a lot different from the 19th and 20th. We already have seen a transition from multimillion dollar steel mills to billion dollar "fabs" making microchips here on Earth, and who knows what will become the dominant industrial base on Mars? We might suspect energy production and use, since that is the foundation of all human civilization, but will this consist of nuclear reactors, solar panels, geothermal taps (well, maybe not on Mars), rectenna on the surface to intercept beamed power from orbiting satellites or biofuels from genetically engineered organisms used to terraform the planet? Each answer will result in a vastly different infrastructure, system of support industries and even to some extent social and political organizations (a dense cluster of heavy industry for nuclear power plant building would concentrate people, economic and political power in a few key regions, while a vast dispersed system of biolabs for terraforming would have a much different economic, social and political structure).

So the two questions you really have to answer to answer your question are: how will the Martians live on Mars (underground vaults are only one possible answer), and, how will Martian civilization get energy?

Once you have decided on how these two problems will be solved, then most other answers will flow from that.

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