Apr. 22, 2015 | By Alec

3D printing is going to space. There seems to be no doubt about it. More and more aerospace industries have been incorporating 3D printing technology into its prototyping and manufacturing processes over the past few years, while the added value of having a 3D printer in a space station is now being readily recognized. And as a group of Caltech students behind the AstroGro have proven with their entry into the Print Your Own Space Food challenge, part of the International Space App Challenge, 3D printers can even be used to sustain human life in space.

The AstroGro team consists of students Betty Wong, Diane Le, Gordon Choi, Steven Winston, Tavor Yisrael, Jama M, Alex Pai and Torkom Pailevanian, who together set out to solve one of the most interesting challenges of this year’s International Space App Challenge. How feasible is it to use food 3D printers in space? Can they be used to sustain a human population in space for longer periods of time?

As the AstroGro team explained in their entry, this issue can be tackled in several ways (mostly through exploring 3D printable pastes), but they decided to take a wholly different approach to 3D printed food in space. ‘Our solution is utilizing the current 3D printing capabilities in space to build an intelligent system to organically grow fresh foods,’ they write. ‘Space travel and space colonization are not feasible without a renewable food supply that can adapt to the unpredictable conditions and needs, inside a shuttle and out.’

This is a very understandable interpretation of the issue; after all you’re going to run out of 3D printing supplies sooner or later in space, and humans need a renewable source of food to ensure survival. And that is exactly what the AstroGro is: ‘A 3D printed pod that is integrated with artificial intelligence (AI) to organically grow fresh food, which will enable sustainable life.’ 3D printing technology is especially useful, as it allows the development of modular farming pods that can be scaled up and down to meet necessities, and can even be easily programmed with AI to manage multiple pods at once.

But other benefits can also be quickly guessed. Fresh and diverse foods can, for instance, alleviate psychological stress and other issues, while AstroGro can also be used to meet preferences of individual astronauts. Finally, the plants grown will filter the air in the space station while waste can be turned into soil. ‘Anyone – an astronaut, spouse, or child untrained in horticulture – can grow fresh crops,’ the team adds.

The students have come up with a very interesting method for managing sustainable and renewable plant growth as well, using a network of sensors and actuators to optimize the environment. ‘Plants on Earth behave differently from plants in a weightless or reduced weight environment such as the Mars surface. In addition to different gravity conditions, plants can have additional environmental constraints not present on Earth. For example, ethylene from spacecraft mold and plastic outgasing inhibits plant growth. This necessitates extensive controlled testing of various plant species in space environments,’ they explain.

To manage all that, they have come up with a series of interesting solutions to manage all aspects of plant growth. Perhaps most interesting is their solution for water absorption to optimize use of that precious resource. ‘ We propose a radiofrequency (RF) absorption measurement comprised of a small pair of transmit-and-receive antenna operating at 2.45 GHz, the absorption frequency of water molecules. The directional transmit (TX) antenna is directed through the plant's foliage to the receive (RX) antenna. The water content of the plant's foliage is proportional to the growth and water retention of the plant. A higher absorption implies a larger and healthier plant,’ they write. Hydration itself will be largely provided through greywater, night soil and filtration.

The vital temperatures can be controlled using a series of sensors attached to heating and cooling elements, while a light cycling system (even with an energy saving mode) can be used to provide the crucial lights. In fact, AstroGro has even taken gravity adjustments into consideration. ‘In a weightless environment, gravity can be emulated through centrifugal force. Pods are arranged in a hexagonal "wheel" with plant growth directed towards the center,’ they explain. Through contra-rotation, they can adjust for gravitational forces.

All this is largely possible through a combination of 3D printing technology and a clever AI; in fact, in the video clip above they even suggest app-based managing of pods depending on your supplies and preferences.

However, 3D printing is obviously key. ‘The advantage of a completely 3D printed chassis is the ability to print, reclaim, and reprint filament. Old pods can be broken down and heated into new filament. This filament can be stored, used for additional parts and tools, or reprinted into new pods,’ the team explains. But more importantly, it enables modeular adaptation of the system to meet factors of crew and living space. Is a higher calorie count necessary due to physical exertion? In that case additional pods can be 3D printed or the composition of current crops can be altered.

In short, AstroGro and 3D printing technology provides a crew in space with all the freedom necessary for sustainable and continuous food supplies. 3D printers obviously have more food-based applications than simply extruding pastes. 



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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Booblick wrote at 4/22/2015 11:21:57 PM:

I would love to see more grow-your-own-food implementations for 3D printing.

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