As we showed you in a recent slideshow, some NASA scientists envision astronauts making whatever they need out of local materials on Mars or the moon via 3D printing. While technology from organizations like Contour Crafting has made this theoretically possible, now, Washington State University (WSU) engineers have actually used moon rocks to print some simple-shaped objects -- on Earth.
Real moon rocks are too rare, so researchers are using an imitation moon rock called lunar regolith simulant. Regolith is a mixture of loose dust, rock, and soil that covers solid bedrock on earth, as well as other planets, the moon, and some asteroids. The simulant is formulated to approximate the real lunar regolith's chemical and mineral properties. There are several versions. The WSU team used about 10 lb of one version that contains silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron, and magnesium oxides.
Washington State University engineers have 3D-printed some simple-shaped objects using a simulant of lunar regolith, a mixture of loose dust, rock, and soil that covers solid bedrock. Shown here, Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke drives a core sample tube into the lunar regolith. (Source: NASA)
A team that includes Amit Bandyopadhyay and Susmita Bose, professors at the university's School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, has demonstrated the printing of parts from the raw, artificial moon rock. NASA is working with several organizations, including Contour Crafting, to develop the technology for fabricating simple tools or replacement parts, but Bandyopadhyay's group is the first to demonstrate the ability.
Previously, Bandyopadhyay and Bose had used 3D printing to create bone-like materials for use in orthopedic implants. Their current work uses Laser Engineering Net Shaping (LENS) technology, specifically, LENS-750 systems. These are based on laser sintering, the most common additive manufacturing method. The team published its results in an article in the Rapid Prototyping Journal.
According to the article abstract, the team produced dense parts with no macroscopic defects, which they characterized to evaluate how laser processing affected the lunar regolith simulant's microstructure, constituent phases, and chemistry. Characterization was done using X-ray diffraction, differential scanning calorimetry, scanning electron microscope, and X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy.
Although the laser processing did cause marginal changes in the material's composition, after some trial and error, the researchers managed to produce parts that did not crack when they solidified.
The team has sent its results to NASA. Other team members include Vamsi Krishna Balla, also with WSU's School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering; Luke B. Roberson, of NASA's Kennedy Space Center; Gregory W. O'Connor, of Amalgam Industries; and Steven Trigwell, of ASRC Aerospace Corp. The research was supported by a $750,000 W.M. Keck Foundation grant.
In the video below, Bandyopadhyay shows the regolith material and explains that the technology can also be used onsite to repair broken parts. The achievement, he says in the video, is a first-generation work that will probably not be ready for commercial use for another 50 years or so.
I suspect it may not take that long, considering how fast this technology area is advancing. NASA is already working on 3D printing rocket engine parts, and other researchers have figured out how to 3D print entire personal electronic devices. The two biggest challenges in printing objects from moon rocks seem to be figuring out the best combination of laser sintering processing and moon rock material, plus, making small printers that will work in a zero-gravity environment.
Greg, most of what I've read mentions simple tools and replacement parts would be the prime candidates. But then there's also the idea of making structures, like Contour Crafting has proposed http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1392&doc_id=250614 JimG, thanks for weighing in with your direct experience. I think this is a very promising and exciting area to be working in.
If you mine the regolith on the moon's surface, there are actually quite a bit of materials that can be processed. Different locations on the moon will result in different percentages in composition. My employer, Teledyne Brown Engineering (TBE), has worked with Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) on In Situ Fabrication and Repair (ISFR) where we looked at using lunar regolith as a feedstock for additive manufacturing as well as other complementary projects. We specifically looked at the EBM process. With the EBM using a vacuum in their build chamber, the lunar environment is an excellent one. We have looked at mining oxygen from the lunar surface and using the waste products from this process (metal oxides), converting it to powder, and using it as the feedstock. It is certainly possible. There is titanium and other metals available on the moon.
We have looked at mining this material, as well as combining all metal "waste", and also looking at the lunar regolith. We did this work 4-5 years ago using a couple different simulants. We made some brick samples using lunar simulant along with a binder. The funding stopped and we could not continue this work. The funds were re-directed to more short-term work such as building a new rocket to replace the shuttle fleet! Other areas of interest included non-destructive inspection of additive manufactured parts such as Microwave and millimeter wave nondestructive testing and evaluation methods. We looked at post-processing these AM parts to arrive at acceptable tolerances. We even looked at growing biological parts as well as producing electrical components such as PC Boards and discreet components.
I'm glad to see additional work being done in this area. We spent 4-5 years working on everything from a lunar base to documenting possible existing parts on the ISS that could be replicated using additive manufacturing in space. NASA is very interested in looking at in situ manufacturing and this work will help make it happen. We worked with the Contour Crafter in building habitats and building launch/landing sites.
This was some really fun work. Hopefully, we can get the project going again and help make some significant progress!
Greg, to answer your other question concerning what components will be fabricated first, you have to decide what spares make sense to bring with you. In some cases, the upmass makes sense to bring the spares. I think the first things to fabrciate may be simple tools or unique tools made for specific applications. Additionally, the exercise equipment is always in need of repair on the ISS so I could see some repair parts for the crew health equipment.
Ann, did you get a sense of what types of components will have the first priority for fabrication on the moon? I would imagine that the limited material available will also limit the variety of parts that can be fabricated.
Didn't know that printing on the Moon or Mars would require working in a "zero gravity" environment. Low gravity, as compared to earth maybe, but not zero gravity. If you are going to be making stuff to be used on the surface it would make no sense to transport it to space and then back to the surface as that would have a heavy cost in fuel that would be in short supply.
Lunar Regolith sounds a lotlike moon dust, which should be available in adequate quantities on the moon, it seems.
What are the mechanical properties of the parts fabricated thus far, and are they actually useable? I know that the first 3D printed parts were primarily useful for visualizing and not much else. But tha was in 1988.
Producing parts from the materials listed does not seem like they would be very tough, but rather very hard and quite brittle, unless some additional work was done on the mixture prior to laser sintering. I see a real challenge in providing a uniform particle size and uniform chemical composition.
Providing enough power to run the 3D printer is the other challenge that could be an obstacle to using the process onthe moon, although with an adequate solar array enough power should be available.
If more information is available a discussion of the properties of the material will be an interesting presentation indeed.
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