Jun 24, 2016 | By Tess

As we know, 3D printing technologies have already reached the final frontier, with Made in Space having sent two 3D printers to the International Space Station in collaboration with NASA. Recently, people were wowed by the news that the AMF 3D printing system printed its very first tool aboard the space station, and now even more extraterrestrial 3D printing excitement is on the way. NASA has reportedly awarded Firmamentum, a division of private aerospace company Tethers Unlimited, $750,000 in funding to develop and build a 2-in-one 3D printer and plastic recycler for the ISS.

As one can imagine, once you’re in space materials are in limited supply, and having more shipped not only takes a significant amount of time, but costs an enormous amount of money. 3D printing technologies have offered the aerospace industry a way to cut down on how many tools and parts need to actually be shipped to space, but having a plastic recycling system up there could effectively cut down on even the amount of 3D printing materials that must be shipped.

The machine that Firmamentum is developing is called the Refabricator, and while there is no set date for when the device will be sent to the ISS, NASA can expect to see the machine as soon as next year, said Rob Hoyt, president of Tethers Unlimited and Firmamentum. According to Hoyt, developing the Refabricator for space will effectively be an “experiment to see how many times you can recycle plastic in the microgravity environment before polymers break down.”

Currently, Firmamentum has an existing plastic recycling system called Positrusion, which unlike many of the other plastic recycling devices on the market, can churn out filament that meets standard specifications without constant surveillance and tinkering, and actually minimizes the process of chemical degradation that occurs when plastics are melted and extruded a number of times. The Refabricator then would also incorporate a 3D printer into that system to make for a pretty much self-sustaining manufacturing machine, a technology which could come especially in handy on, say, a mission to Mars.

Made in Space AMF 3D printer's first tool aboard ISS

Jesse Cushing, the principal investigator for the Refabricator project, explained, “This capability will enable the astronauts to use material that would otherwise be waste to maintain their spacecraft and adapt to unforeseen challenges on the Martian surface. For example, if Mark Watney had a Refabricator, he could have easily recycled his food trays and other plastic waste into the tools and parts he needed to survive, and ‘The Martian’ would have been much less of a nail-biter.”

So far, the Firmamentum plastic recycling system has been tested through three or four manufacturing cycles, though the tests have been ground-based. Naturally, the next step in the development process is testing how the machine fairs in a zero-gravity environment. The machine, which reportedly measures about the size of two suitcases, could be a breakthrough for not only in space additive manufacturing, but even for closed-cycle 3D printing systems here on earth.

As mentioned, for now there is no set date for when the Refabricator will be sent to space, as NASA must still analyze, test, and ok the machine.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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