3D printers could make parts from moon rocks

29 November 2012
By Sofia Mitra-Thakur
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A moon rock floats on board the International Space Station (credit NASA)

A moon rock floats on board the International Space Station (credit NASA)

US researchers have successfully printed 3D objects out of simulated moon rock and say lunar and Martian explorers could use the technology to make tools and spare parts.

"It sounds like science fiction, but now it’s really possible," said Amit Bandyopadhyay, a professor at Washington State University.

Bandyopadhyay and a group of colleagues recently published a paper in Rapid Prototyping Journal demonstrating how to print parts using materials from the moon.

Bandyopadhyay and Susmita Bose, both professors in the university's School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, are well known researchers in the area of three-dimensional printing for creation of bone-like materials for orthopaedic implants.

NASA researchers contacted Bandyopadhyay in 2010 to ask if the research team would be able to print 3D objects from moon rock.

Because of the huge expense of space travel, researchers strive to limit what spaceships have to carry.

Establishment of a lunar or Martian outpost would require using the materials that are on hand for construction or repairs, which is where the 3D fabrication technology would be useful.

Three-dimensional fabrication technology, also known as additive manufacturing, allows researchers to produce complex 3D objects directly from computer-aided design (CAD) models, printing the material layer by layer.

In this case, the material is heated using a laser to high temperatures and prints out like melting candle wax to a desired shape.

To test the idea, NASA researchers provided Bandyopadhyay and Bose with 10 pounds of raw lunar regolith simulant, an imitation moon rock that is used for research purposes.

The WSU researchers were concerned about how the moon rock material - which is made of silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron and magnesium oxides - would melt.

But they found it behaved similarly to silica, and they built a few simple shapes.

The researchers are the first to demonstrate the ability to fabricate parts using the moon-like material and they have sent their pieces to NASA.

"It doesn’t look fantastic, but you can make something out of it," said Bandyopadhyay.

Using additive manufacturing, the material could also be tailored, the researchers said

If you want a stronger building material, for instance, you could perhaps use some moon rock with earth-based additives.

"The advantage of additive manufacturing is that you can control the composition as well as the geometry," said Bose.

In the future, the researchers hope to show that the lunar material could be used to do remote repairs.

"It is an exciting science fiction story, but maybe we’ll hear about it in the next few years," said Bandyopadhyay.

"As long as you can have additive manufacturing set up, you may be able to scoop up and print whatever you want. It’s not that far-fetched."

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