Aug 23, 2017 | By Benedict

Clemson University researchers are developing a technique for turning human waste into recycled 3D printing filament. With special microorganisms, both urine and exhaled carbon dioxide could be turned into usable materials for 3D printing spare parts, tools, and other useful items.

Visitors to our site who have an interest in space travel will likely have noticed a trend in current research: scientists are constantly talking about how in-situ materials on the Moon and Mars could be turned into a 3D printing filament.

The advantages of doing so are clear: by turning local materials into a 3D printable substance, astronauts (or unmanned ships) would be able to start 3D printing on another planet (or the Moon) without bringing large quantities of materials with them. This would save vital storage space on the vehicle, also reducing its total mass and saving huge amounts of money in fuel costs.

But potential astronaut 3D printing materials aren’t limited to dust and regolith. According to new research by scientists at the Mark Blenner Group at Clemson University, human waste could soon be used as a viable 3D printing material. After a little mixing with special microorganisms, both urine and exhaled carbon dioxide could be made into a printable material for space travel projects.

“If astronauts are going to make journeys that span several years, we'll need to find a way to reuse and recycle everything they bring with them,” explains Mark A. Blenner, Ph.D. “Atom economy will become really important.”

That’s why Blenner and his team have developed a biological system that includes a variety of strains of the yeast Yarrowia lipolytica. Requiring both nitrogen and carbon to grow, this yeast could be “fed” with astronaut waste.

With the waste mixture allowed to develop, it could then be turned into polymers with various mechanical properties, potentially giving astronauts the necessary materials for 3D printing spare parts, new tools, and whatever else they need on a long-distance mission.

But it’s not just polymers for 3D printing that can be made with this stuff. The yeast, with the right mix of extra ingredients, can also be used to make essential nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential to heart, eye, and brain health.

It’s a tactic we didn’t see Matt Damon explore in The Martian, but it could really work.

At the moment, Blenner and the other researchers can only produce small amounts of 3D printable polymers or nutrients with the mix of waste and yeast, but with more research they believe they can make a system with a high output. In fact, if their biological system turns out particularly well, it could even be used on Earth as well as in space.

Whatever becomes of the recycled waste system, the scientists’ research is contributing to the growing pool of information about Y. lipolytica.

“We're learning that Y. lipolytica is quite a bit different than other yeast in their genetics and biochemical nature,” Blenner says. “Every new organism has some amount of quirkiness that you have to focus on and understand better.”

The researchers recently presented their findings at the National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society. The project was funded by NASA’s Space Technology Research Grants Program.



Posted in 3D Printing Materials



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