Sep 22, 2016 | By Alec

3D printing and space, it seems like a natural combination. Space organizations from all across the world are already seeing zero-gravity 3D printing as a flexible solution for keeping aerospace transportation costs as low as possible. After all, sending a few basic 3D printable supplies into space is far less costly than sending each and every necessary item up. But just reaching space costs $10,000 per pound, so the Mission to Mars will likely be astoundingly expensive. But a group of Danish students might have a 3D printing solution called CosmoCrops. While fully embracing the 3D printing space exploration principle, they are looking to grow all those 3D printable materials – from food to drugs and plastics – in space using a custom coculturing system.

While still years away from becoming practical, the concept itself is fantastic. As Danish Professor of planetary biology Kai Finster from Aarhus University explains, bacteria could be the key. If programmed correctly, these single-celled organisms can theoretically produce the basic elements of everything around us, from screwdrivers to a steak. “But when you’re 50 million kilometers away from the Earth, you really want to be sure that it works. There are still lots of phases to test before it becomes a reality, but the students have come a long way and it’s really good,” Finster says.

So how does it work? Microalgae (cyanobacterium) can be programmed to harvest sunlight and produce sugars. Another bioengineered bacteria, Bacillus subtilis, will digest that sugar to produce whatever it has been programmed to manufacture – from plastics to vitamins and minerals and food. Those materials, in turn, can be 3D printed into basic equipment. “Our bacteria will help to make Astronauts baggage lighter,” says Joachim Larsen, one of the project’s students. “If you need a screwdriver, then you can grab a Petri dish filled with bacteria that can make bio-plastics and place the bacteria in a bio-reactor, where the sugar-producing cyanobacteria is already present. The bio-plastic bacteria use the sugar from cyanobacteria to produce bio-plastics that can then be used in a 3D-printer. And voila, you have your screwdriver.”

CosmoCrops is perfect on paper because it needs so little equipment. “The development of better ways to exploit sunlight in the production of biomaterials can lead to more sustainable and diverse production methods, and to essential onsite production in remote areas like a Moon or Mars base,” the students write on their university website. They will be closely working with Professor Poul Erik Jensen, of the Copenhagen Plant Science Center, and Associate Professor of Plant Biochemistry Sotirios Kampranis as well, with astrobiology expertise coming from Associate Professor Morten Bo Madsen and master student Christina Toldbo.

What’s more, they are building on similar coculture systems developed right here on earth. But it is in space where such an approach can be most valuable and cost effective. “We ultimately wish to supply the International Space Station and future moon or Mars bases with more flexible bioreactors consisting of interchangeable cartridges allowing for onsite production of bioplastics and pharmaceutical compounds all from the same biological system,” the students say.

But it’s still a work-in-progress concept and the students hope to have a functioning coculture system in operation next month. Bacteria that can withstand space conditions could follow in 2018, but it will take years to develop all the strains of bacteria that can manufacture fats, carbs, proteins and everything else that makes up a single hamburger. Producing edible and tasty food will take even longer, but the students are very optimistic. “So long as you know the synthetic path and the chemical recipe for what you want the bacteria to produce, then in principle they can make anything, including food and medicine,” Larsen argues says.

Even if all that works, the students will still have to tackle to sunlight problem on Mars, which receives far less intense light than we do here on earth. While they thus have a huge challenge ahead of them, the CosmoCrops concept can certainly make a huge contribution to space exploration.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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