Jun 21, 2018 | By Thomas

3D printing in space. It sounds like something straight out of Star Trek and completely unrealistic, but it has actually been around for a while already. NASA has been experimenting with a zero-gravity 3D printer aboard the International Space Station since 2014 and recently even sent up an upgrade. But other space-exploring nations are not far behind, as scientists at the Technology and Engineering Center for Space Utilization of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has just successfully completed an experiment to 3D print ceramic parts containing lunar dust under microgravity.

According to Wang Gong, Director of the CAS Key Laboratory of Space Manufacturing Technology, this is the world’s first ceramic manufacturing experiment in microgravity. The scientists used a DLP 3D printer to manufacture the ceramics on a European parabolic flight aircraft run by Novespace of Switzerland.

"This is a widely used 3D printing technology, but it's previously been regarded as inapplicable in a microgravity environment," said Wang Gong.

A ceramic sample produced in microgravity. Image credit: Technology and Engineering Center for Space Utilization of the Chinese Academy of Sciences

According to CAS, those tests in microgravity were very successful. In the process of the experiments, the scientists also tested a metal casting technique using 3D printed ceramic molds. Both experiments are aimed at further developing technologies to produce instrument components on China's future space station, build large telescopes in space or even build on the Moon and Mars.

Lunar dust is mainly comprised of silicate particles at nanometer or sub-micrometer scale, similar to the raw materials of ceramics. The lunar soil also contains metals such as titanium, aluminum and iron.

"We can develop the technology to manufacture ceramic molds with the lunar dust, and then cast components by using metals in the lunar soil with the ceramic molds," said Wang.

However, fine particles float easily and are difficult to control in microgravity. Currently, filament are commonly used in space manufacturing experiments, but according to Wang, the accuracy and smoothness of filament are not satisfactory. So Chinese scientists developed a technology to mix the powder into a special resin to form a paste, which was then solidified with DLP technology.

"Our team has spent more than two years studying how to make a paste that does not float freely in microgravity, which is the most creative and valuable part of the technology. We think the technology can be used in processing many sorts of fine particles," Wang said.

On June 12 and 13, they conducted 28 experiments under microgravity, two experiments under lunar gravity and two under Martian gravity on the European aircraft. In total, they produced 10 ceramic and 8 metal samples.

3D printed Metal samples produced in microgravity. Image credit: Technology and Engineering Center for Space Utilization of the Chinese Academy of Sciences

"We want to test whether we can make a regular object with a smooth surface with the technology, and we made ceramic cubes to see their micro-structure in different gravity conditions," said Wang.

During the metal casting experiments, they a screw and a small wrench among other samples.

"The samples are of good quality, which shows the technology can be applied in different gravity conditions, and verifies the feasibility of the technology," Wang said.

The technology could be used for rapid in-situ production of of semiconductors, bio-scaffolds, optical parts and micro-electromechanical systems for space exploration.

"Our long-term goal is to develop intelligent machines that can work on the Moon or Mars. But those machines will be more complicated," Wang said. "Elon Musk and SpaceX are developing technologies to take people to other planets, and we are developing technologies to help them survive," Wang added.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Technology

 

 

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