Replica space dust used to “3D paint” tools and Lego bricks

Scientists based at Northwestern University, Illinois, have printed 3D structures using simulants of dust found on the surface of the Moon and Mars. Like rubber, the finished products are flexible, elastic and tough, and demonstrate the potential of 3D printing objects in space.

Colonising other planets may take a while. But according to Dr Ramille Shah, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University, it is worth beginning to plan for that eventuality.

“For places like other planets and moons, where resources are limited, people would need to use what is available on that planet in order to live,” she said.

Dr Shah and her colleagues suggest that one possible way in which our descendants – living on other planets or moons – may be able to create their own resources, is to use the natural materials available on that planet as the “ink” for 3D printing.

To test their idea, they used Nasa-approved lunar and Martian dust simulants, which have similar compositions, particle shapes and sizes to the dust collected on lunar and Martian surfaces. These dust replicas were combined with common solvents and a biopolymer to 3D print various objects.

They used their very own “3D painting” process to print the objects; a simple extrusion process which uses novel inks. The researchers have previously used 3D painting to create hyperelastic “bone”, carbon nanotubes, and metals and alloys.

The finished structures were over 90 per cent dust by weight. Despite being mostly composed of micro-rock, they were flexible, elastic and tough, similar to rubber. They can be cut, rolled, folded and shaped. The researchers even tried printed interlocking Lego-like bricks that can be used as small building blocks.

This is the first instance of rubber or soft materials resulting from such resources.

“Our 3D paints really open up the ability to print different functional or structural objects to make habitats beyond Earth,” Dr Shah said. The project opens up the potential to use a single 3D printer on a moon or another planet to create useful objects from whatever materials are available.

The researchers are working how best to fire these unique objects in a furnace, which transforms them from rubbery to hard, ceramic-like structures.

Reuters/Francois Lenoir

Meanwhile, a shop in Gembloux, Belgium, is expanding on the range of materials being 3D printed commercially by selling 3D-printed chocolate. Miam Factory – a shop that branched out from the nearby University of Liege’s Smart Gastronomy Lab – has been using a highly specialised printing machine to apply 0.2mm layers of chocolate to create intricate 3D objects including logos, bottles and animals.

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