Dec 29, 2016 | By Benedict

Russian scientists are planning to install and operate a 3D bioprinter aboard the International Space Station, according to an official source. They believe that microgravity conditions could actually improve the bioprinting process.

Roscosmos could send a 3D bioprinter to the ISS

3D bioprinting and 3D printing in space. On paper, these two technologies appear to be at opposing ends of the 3D printing spectrum. One is at the forefront of biological innovation and could potentially save millions of lives; the other, while useful for small fixes, could be seen by skeptics as something of a publicity stunt. Sound harsh? The creators of the Additive Manufacturing Facility, the plastic-printing 3D printer currently operating on the ISS, have more-or-less admitted as much—by offering companies on Earth the chance to 3D print custom items up in space. Do the astronauts need these items? No, but businesses can generate excellent publicity by having their wares “made in space.”

Of course, 3D printing in space does have practical uses. For example, small replacement parts can be fabricated immediately in order to fix defective machinery. This makes a huge difference when one considers the alternative: waiting for the next spacecraft launch from Earth to deliver the tiny part. Still, given the massive hype surrounding additive manufacturing, especially in and around 2014, one cannot help but feel that Made In Space, NASA, and involved parties might have put a 3D printer in space regardless of the need for one.

At first glance then, the idea of putting a 3D bioprinter in space seems even stranger than sending an FDM 3D printer up there. Given the fact that 3D bioprinting is not yet capable of 3D printing transplantable human organs (that could theoretically be used in emergency surgery on astronauts), one wonders how putting the technology in space would benefit anyone. Perhaps the peace and quiet of space would be beneficial for researchers?

The Additive Manufacturing Facility from Made In Space: useful?

In actual fact, the Russian scientists behind this latest idea seem to have some fairly concrete reasoning behind their plans: they believe that significant progress in bioprinting can be achieved by placing equipment in microgravity conditions, since the lack of gravity could potentially help to keep deposited cells in place. And what better place to test out this hypothesis than space itself?

Valentin Uvarov is department head for commercial projects of manned space exploration at Rocket and Space Corporation Energia, Russia’s leading space manufacturer. In a recent interview with newspaper Izvestia, Uvarov explained the plan in full, telling the newspaper that his organization was planning to conduct an experiment that would use magnetic field manipulation to 3D print living tissue on board the ISS. The project has passed an initial review, which concluded that the technology is indeed feasible.

“Our next stage is to develop and approve technical specifications and design documents for scientific equipment, which would be used for the experiment,” Uvarov said. “But before this equipment gets on board the ISS, we have a long and difficult process to complete: creating and testing it on the ground, developing experiment procedures, and teaching the crew.”

3D bioprinting companies like Organovo are making progress in developing 3D printed human organs

If the hypothesis about bioprinting in microgravity conditions turns out to be true, then 3D bioprinters could—when the technology is perfected—be installed on the ISS and spacecraft to provide biomedical support to crew on interplanetary missions.

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, will now review the proposal from Energia, before deciding whether to press ahead with the space bioprinting mission. There is, at present, no forecast as to when the experiment might be carried out.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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