Feb 24, 2016 | By Alec

Life in space is strange in so many ways. The weightlessness is one thing, but there are so many little habits from your daily life that are suddenly lost, and that can get quite stressful. If a 10 minute coffee break is what gets you through the day, you’re going to have a bad time. Things like drinking from a cup or even smelling the coffee within it is actually impossible. To make life a bit easier, a collaboration of astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and researchers from Portland State University have been studying zero gravity fluid dynamics to make things like drinking that cup of coffee feel more normal. Their latest invention, a 3D printed handheld coffee brewer designed by mechanical engineering graduate student Drew Wollman and his professor Mark Weislogel, was just successfully tested in space.

All of this is part of an ongoing project that has resulted in some interesting 3D printing innovations over the past few years. As professor Weislogel, who teaches physics at Portland State, explained, drinking is fundamentally different in space. “For starters, it would be a chore just getting the coffee into the cup. Absent the pull of gravity, pouring liquids can be very tricky. But, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose you are on the space station and you have a cup of coffee in your hand,” he explained back in 2013. “The most natural thing would be to tip the cup toward your lips, but when you do…. The coffee would be very hard to control. In fact, it probably wouldn't [come out]. You'd have to shake the cup toward your face and hope that some of the hot liquid breaks loose and floats toward your mouth.”

In the worst case scenario, you actually get hit in the face with scalding globules of coffee. That’s why astronauts were, until recently, limited to drinking from sealed containers. But that’s where 3D printing comes in. Back in 2014, Weislogel and his team already designed 3D printed espresso cups that feature a very special geometric setup (the result of their fluid dynamics studies) that pour the coffee right into your mouth, almost as a regular coffee cup does here on earth. A year later, this resulted in cups that even allow astronauts to smell the coffee. These 3D printed cups were actually so safe, they could be thrown back in forth without any trouble. “Hey, you can smell the coffee,” “This is eerily like drinking on Earth,” and fits of laughter were among the responses from the astronauts.

As you can see in the clip below, that special cup design has now been expanded upon. Astronaut Kjell Lindgren, currently in the ISS, contacted Portland State mechanical engineering graduate student Drew Wollman and Weislogel, after seeing the fantastic results of their espresso cups. Lindgren loves freshly brewed coffee, so Wollman and Weislogel designed an expansion for their espresso cup to feature a modified brewing attachment, capable of holding a k-cup. Like the cup, the attachment is 3D printed in transparent polymer. The long plastic crease keeps the liquid right where it needs to be, with surface tension slowly bringing it to your lips. “Wetting conditions and the cup's special geometry create a capillary pressure gradient that drives the liquid forward toward the face of the drinker,” Weislogel previously explained about the special cup.

So how does it work? As you can see in the clip below, the attachment enables the astronaut to hook up a syringe with hot water. By pushing that through the cup, freshly brewed coffee is created with the help of capillary forces. The attachment was designed in just about a week, with the help of 3D printing. “Kjell is really excited about coffee and I think he loved it,” Wollman said of the results. “On the video we saw nothing but joy so it was a success all around!” And with innovations like this, life in space can be made more normal and less stressful, extending our capacity to explore the galaxy around us.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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