Researchers at Washington State University have created objects from moon rocks using a 3-D printer. Someday, researchers contend, this breakthrough could allow astronauts to generate useful tools, like a wrench or replacement part, from rocks on the moon or Mars.
“It sounds like science fiction, but now it’s really possible,” says Amit Bandyopadhyay, professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at WSU.
Professor Bandyopadhyay and his colleagues are well known researchers in the areas of three-dimensional printing and developing bone-like materials for orthopedic implants.
NASA began discussions with Professor Bandyopadhyay and his team in 2010, questioning whether they could print 3-D objects from moon rock because the space agency tries to limit what space ships have to carry into space given the expense of space travel. NASA also notes that creating a lunar or Martian outpost would require native materials for construction or repairs.
Additive manufacturing allows researchers to generate complex three dimensional objects directly from computer-aided design models. In this case, the material is heated using a laser to high temperature and prints out like melting candle wax to a desired shape.
NASA provided 10 pounds of imitation moon rock for Professor Bandyopadhyay to test his ideas. At first, the researchers were worried that the moon rock material (silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron and magnesium oxides) would melt, but they discovered that it acted like silica. They were able to create a few simple shapes.
The researchers are the first to show the ability to fabricate parts using the imitation moon rocks.
“It doesn’t look fantastic, but you can make something out of it,” says Bandyopadhyay.
Researchers think that the moon material could be tailored to fit NASA’s needs. If stronger materials were needed, for example, earth-based additives could be used to strengthen the material.
“The advantage of additive manufacturing is that you can control the composition as well as the geometry,” says colleague Susmita Bose. The researchers think that they can demonstrate that lunar material can be used to make remote repairs on lunar outposts.
“It is an exciting science fiction story, but maybe we’ll hear about it in the next few years,” says Professor 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.”
The researchers recently described how to print parts using materials from the moon in Rapid Prototyping Journal.