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.
ChasChas, minerals are not to be dismissed--and they are also found on the moon. If a widescale disaster happened here on Earth, as in sci-fi novels and movies, and all cultures got sent back to the stone age, it would be really difficult to re-create current conditions primarily because we've used up most of the Earth's minerals that were available via mining, to forge metals. Those metals are what we used to build machines, including the ones that then built other materials. The history of industrial technology is an interesting and instructive study.
I'd like to point out that the materials upon which our technology is based aren't consumed and made to be unusable once they have been incorporated into our machines and infrastructure. That is to say, we have not "used up" the iron, aluminum and other raw materials and they will be more accessible to future post dark age humanity that they were to our ancestors. They will just be in other places and not in their native ores. They will be in land fills, salvage yards and in the infrastructure concentrated in urban areas. In fact, many of them will be in a form much more recognizable as useful to people in a dystopian future than they were the first time we dug them out of the ground. Granted, fossil fuels will be much harder to find but that should be the only resource disadvantage to future peoples trying to build a technological society from scratch.
This reminds me of the folks who think money spent on space exploration disappears into the vacuum of the void with the few insignificant pounds of materials that we actually send into space. That money feeds into the economy and allows many people to feed their families, pay their mortgages, etc. and is in no way a waste or lost forever.
emneumann, thanks for the comments, and glad you liked the article. Unfortunately, we *have* used up many, perhaps even most, sources of raw native ores. Scrap and reclaimed metals are by no means easily reusable at the same strengths as when originally forged. Aluminum makers claim theirs is, but as usual, that depends on several variables. The dystopic scenarios are not confined to science fiction.
Ann this is really very informative article , thats really great that researchers are working on 3D printing by lunar rocks . This will drop down the cargo charges for the objects in case of development on moon . Many years back i heard that astronauts wants to colonize the moon but it was very difficult now what i feel in the near futur to develop coloniese it will be very easy to develop colonies on moon .
Thanks, Deberah. The cost of the fuel and logistics involved in shipping stuff to astronauts on the space station, the moon, or another planet is considered by many to be one of the main reasons humans haven't gone on longer space voyages or spent time on the moon. Another is figuring out how to protect us from harmful cosmic ray radiation.
Ann , you are absolutely correct the main issue these days for astronauts is cosmic ray radiation , these radiations are very harmfull and causes severe cellular damage which can result least in cancer and can lead to deaths as well .I have read somewhere that using plastic in deep space can drop down the issue of cosmic rays . Plastic reduces the radiation from fast moving charged particles cosmic rays , Anything with high hydrogen content with water will work well. However NASA is working in all of these remedies to find out a perfect solution .
Funny you should mention that about certain types of plastic helping to shield astronauts from cosmic rays. You're right--it's in an instrument in NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. I just wrote a blog on this discovery that will be appearing soon.
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