"Spinning Up" Glass-Glass Composites Technology

We need them "ready to go" when we return to the Moon

Previously published in Moon Miners' Manifesto # 16 June 1987

by Peter Kokh 1987 The Lunar Reclamation Society

A Building Material Tailored for Production on the Moon

Glass-glass-composites, more exactly glass-fiber / glass-matrix / composites, or simply GGC, are a promising new horizon for construction and manufacture. This new bird in the flock of materials available to man is still inside the eggshell but pecking away at it. What we know of GGC's promise we owe to Dr. Brandt Goldsworthy of Goldsworthy Labs in San Francisco, who at the request of Space Studies Institute in Princeton ( SSI ) made laboratory-sized samples and investigated their properties (his report is available for $ 3 from Space Studies Institute, PO Box 82, Princeton NJ 08540). His work gives reason to believe that GGC building materials will be as strong as steel or stronger, and considerably less costly in energy terms to manufacture.

The occasion for this bit of incubation of a theoretical hunch lies in careful analysis by SSI of the possibilities of producing serviceable metal alloys from the common ingredients in lunar soil. While the Moon is rich in iron -- some of it free uncombined fines -- and other important metallic elements such as aluminum, titanium, magnesium, and manganese, these are just starting points; to make alloys with good working properties, other ingredients in lesser amounts must be added. It turns out that our customary and familiar stable of alloys used on Earth often require recipe ingredients that are not easily or economically isolated from the soil. Furthermore, alloy production takes a great deal of energy and therefore represents a technology direction for a very advanced lunar civilization, and not one for an early base trying to justify its existence with useful exports to LEO or elsewhere. Alloys will come on line someday; it will take young metallurgists without defeatist attitudes ready to scrap Earth-customary alloy formulations and experiment from scratch with available elements until they have a lunar-appropriate repertoire which will serve well. But that is another story. Here we want to explore the tremendous potential of GGCs.

Taking GGC development out of the laboratory

But how can we explore the potential of a laboratory curiosity? We can't. Are we to wait until we get to the Moon and then fiddle around, hoping that we come up with something before the base has its next budget review? You would think so from the present dearth of activity.

Why not haul GGC out of the lab and put it through its paces in the real world? Sure that takes money, but with a little imagination it is easy to see that GGC could become a profitable industry, here and now, on good old Cradle Earth. And if so, our newly acquired expertise and experience will be ready to go whenever the powers that be establish a longterm human foothold on Luna.

What is the realistic market potential that would justify the effort and expense of getting off our bottoms and pre-developing this promising technology now? If we are talking about something only useful for industrial construction material, then the threshold for successful market penetration is high. Our GGC products must come online either cheaper than every competing material or have such superior properties as compared to existing alternatives as to force potential customers to take the gamble. But to limit ourselves, especially at the outset, to such a line of products is not only accepting unnecessary barriers to success, it evidences a great lack of imagination.

Does GGC have a potential for consumer products? This is an important question, for with such products cost can be secondary to other considerations such as visual appeal due to inherent special design and style possibilities, etc. The consumer market could be a much easier nut to crack, and once established and experienced there, our infant industry would be better poised for market entry in the industrial-commercial world.

Groundwork for a Business Plan

Before we speculate further, we must take a look at this intriguing new material and put it through the paces to see what we can and can't do with it. Without that, we are building castles in the air. We have a logical plan of attack for these experiments, thanks to the analogy of GGC to a long familiar family of materials with which we have abundant experience: fiberglass reinforced plastic resin composites, the stuff of which we make boat hulls, shower stalls, pickup toppers, whirlpool spas, corrugated porch roofing, and a host of other handy products. Fiber reinforced plastics or FRPs offer the game GGC entrepreneur a handy agenda for exploring the talents of the new material.

First our enterprising hero will want to see what fiberglass-like fabrication methods GGC is amenable to mimicking. Can ( or should ) the still hot and workable glass matrix with glass fibers already embedded be draped over a mold to take its form, or be compression molded in a die and press? Can ( or should ) the glass fiber be set in the mold and then impregnated with the molten glass matrix? ( The magic of GGC lies in using two glass formulations: one with a higher melting point from which to make glass fibers, and one with a much lower melting point to serve as the matrix in which the reinforcing fibers are embedded. ) Can ( or should ) the glass fibers be first impregnated with a cold frit of the powdered glass that will form the matrix upon heating in the mold to its fusing point? Once the entrepreneur has learned which fabrication methods work best or can be adapted to the idiosyncrasies of GGC in various test formulations, he is ready for the next round of experimentation.

Fabricating a "piece" of GGC of a certain useful size and shape is only the first victory. We must learn how to machine it: can the material be sawed, drilled, routed, deburred, taped, etc.? We need to know this before we can design assembly methods. If adhesives are to be used, what works best? Thermal expansion properties of GGC formulation will be important, as well. Once our entrepreneur has done all his hands-on homework, knows what he can do with this new stuff, and has outfitted his starter plant with the appropriate machinery, tooling, and other appropriate equipment, it's time to sit down with his market-knowledgeable partner and decide on product lines.

But let's back up a moment. We said we were going for the consumer market as the ideal place to get our feet wet, and for this market one thing is paramount: visual appeal. So we go back to the lab and start playing around with our formulations. Glass of course is easily colored. Coloring the matrix glass will not provide us with a distinctive product. But colored glass fibers in a transparent glass matrix suggest tantalizing possibilities. The fibers could lie in random directions, be crosshatched or woven, swirled, or combed to give an apparent grain. We will want to see which of these suggestions are most practical, which have the most stunning and distinguished consumer eye-appeal, etc., all without compromising the strength of our material. As to the colors: black, green, brown, blue, cranberry, and amber would give us an ample starter palette. But before buying up bin-fulls of the necessary ingredients we could do some inexpensive footwork, using abundant and inexpensive green and brown bottle glass for our fibers to give us a first feel for likely results of this avenue of product enhancement. Our homework done, we are ready to burst onto the world scene.

Fast Forward via Day Dream

Our recycled long-empty plant (the rent is cheap and a lease wasn't necessary ) has been humming for a while now. Production hasn't begun because the designers are still working on the molds and dies for the introductory product line. Buyers and outlets are being lined up. At last Lunar Dawn Furniture Company is ready to greet the unsuspecting world. At first we produce only ( stunning of course ) case goods: coffee and end tables, etageres and bookcases and bedroom sets, etc. Then we introduce a line of tubular patio furniture that makes the PVC kind look gauche. Next we branch into an upholstered line with beautiful external frames. Office furniture, striking unbreakable fluted glass lamp shades, stair and balcony railings, and unique entry doors are our next targets. Our prices are somewhat high at first, at least with the initial lines, but we were the rage at the fall furniture show in North Carolina and the spring Home Shows in every town. Lunar Dawn takes it's place beside Early American, Mediterranean, Danish Modern, and Eighteenth Century English.

We introduce less expensive but still appealing lines and franchise our operations, targeting especially the less developed nations that need to curtail their forest-razing and which have an abundance of the raw materials needed for glass making. But we also begin to diversify into the commercial and industrial markets. We've learned to make beams and panels and now offer a whole line of architectural systems for competition with steel and aluminum pole buildings, etc. One of our branches is now marketing GGC conduit and pipe at competitive prices. Another is offering a full range of clear non-laminated safety glass for buildings and vehicles.

Meanwhile we are not resting on our laurels in the consumer world. Casings for small appliances, cookware, ovenware, and tableware; handles, wash basins, and countertops; boat hulls for boulder-studded white water use; all are now available in GGC. A big hit with the fans is our indestructible flagship in the sports world, our GGC bodied Demo Derby Dragon. The same car has won its first dozen events and looks none the worse for it.

Of course, we've long since abandoned the cumbersome GGC or Glass-Glass-Composite tags. The public got what it needs, a simple one syllable pigeonhole. We're known and recognized everywhere as GLAX, a word suggesting glass with a difference: strength. And visually, the "ss"-replacing-"x" even suggests the dual composition involved. Glax is a generic term like steel or wool and even has its own generic logo, a symbol for public recognition and promotion.

You'll see in the logo symbol an allusion the Moon. For the ulterior motive inspiring the people behind the successful Glax entry into Earth markets was the need to predevelop a technology suited for early lunar bases and settlements. Glax will provide a relatively inexpensive, uncomplicated industry for the settlers both to furnish badly needed exports, and just as important, a whole range of domestic products that will help hold the line on imports. As such, Glax is an essential keystone in the plan to achieve economic viability and autonomy for the projected City.

There is a lot of enthusiasm on Earth now, not just for a lunar version of an Antarctic-style scientific outpost, but for a genuine settlement. This change of attitude did not happen by accident, and the story of Glax on Earth played a major role in this turn of events. Glax, since the first door-opening day of Lunar Dawn Furniture Company, was aggressively marketed as an anticipatory lunar technology. The public began to get the idea that moon dust might be good for something and that the idea of a self-supporting settlement relying largely on its own resources was not a flake notion, but rather something reasonable, even to be expected! Lunar Dawn helped the process along when after moving into its brand new plant in suburban Milwaukee, it built a simulated lunar home next door, soil-sheltered and all, with solar access, periscopic picture windows, ceramic, glass, and metal interior surfaces, and of course furnished with its own Glax furniture lines. The habitat was accessed by "pressurized walkway" from the meeting hall-display room-library-computer network room and gift shop built alongside and used free of charge by Milwaukee Lunar Reclamation Society.

How did this all happen? Notice the fine print on Lunar Dawn ads and billboards ( also used in connection with other Glax product companies ): it reads "An Ulterior Ventures Company". Ulterior Ventures isn't some big conglomerate but a unique venture fund which the National Space Society helped to organize to give entrepreneurs willing to predevelop anticipated lunar technologies for Earth markets, a little help to get started. Successful members of the Ulterior Ventures family pay a royalty which helps build the fund for even more ambitious exploits. In future articles we hope to tell you about other successful -- if not so well known -- members of the Ulterior Ventures family.

Fiction? Yes. Unrestrained flight of fancy? No! This is the sort of thing that could happen with National Space Society encouragement, if the society can be persuaded to show the same enthusiasm for direct action as it always has for indirect agitation, in seeking "to make it happen". If necessary, having to start from scratch to build the infrastructure to incubate and support such "ulterior ventures" would mean an unwelcome setback in time, effort, and personal energies.

The development path illustrated above is just the opposite of "spin-off." Instead of NASA embarking on a crash research program at exorbitant cost and then turning over the resultant technology at no cost to commercial enterprises with the taxpayer footing the bill, in "spin-up" a private enterprise, motivated by profit, develops the technology, with the consumer paying the bill. As a result, when the technology is needed on the space frontier, it is already "on-the-shelf" and in need of relatively inexpensive adaptation only.

This brand new infant industry sketched above does not require expertise in preexisting sophisticated technologies to get started. Almost any of use could get in on the ground floor of such an endeavor in one or more capacities. Any takers? -- Peter Kokh May 1988

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