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3D Printing in Microgravity Takes Space Colonization One Step Closer


3D printing advances have made important contributions to the aerospace industry. They are not just reduced weight and customizability – researchers are working on enabling in-situ manufacturing, reducing reliance on material supplies on Earth.

A research project developed by engineering students and the Microgravity Research Team at West Virginia University (WVU) sheds light on the feasibility of on-site manufacturing of essential materials and equipment during extended space missions.

The project aims to make space exploration and habitation of spaceships more affordable, efficient, and sustainable.

The ongoing experiments focus on the impact of a weightless microgravity environment on 3D printing using titania foam. This material has many potential applications, from making lightweight structural components to blocking UV and purifying water. The Microgravity Research Team’s findings were published in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

Author Jacob Cordonier, a doctoral student in mechanical and aerospace engineering, highlighted that 3D printing can also be used to recycle materials on space missions, which ultimately helps to reduce the amount of waste. Their study explored the potential of 3D-printed titanium dioxide foam in protecting against ultraviolet radiation and purifying water in outer space.

The research also examined how gravity affects the 3D printing process, particularly the shape of the printed material. By adjusting variables like writing speed and extrusion pressure, the team gained valuable insights into optimizing the filament’s shape.

WVU engineering students and Microgravity Research Team members Renee Garneau, Trenton Morris and Ronan Butts test a 3D printer the MRT lab has designed to operate in weightless environments like a spaceship, the moon or Mars. (WVU Photo/Brian Persinger)

The research team includes both undergraduate and graduate students, along with faculty members. Their work is part of the larger effort to support in-situ resource utilization. It involves mining resources on the moon to manufacture necessary equipment for space missions, such as shields against ultraviolet light.

The titania foam, they discovered, effectively blocks UV radiation and exhibits photocatalytic properties that can purify air and water.

The team aims to integrate research into students’ careers early on, with undergraduates participating in various aspects of the research process, from materials development to data analysis.

The compact and automated 3D printer may one day find its way to the International Space Station for more extensive monitoring, furthering their mission to extend space exploration while utilizing available resources and reducing the need for resupply missions.

Image Credit: WVU Photo/Brian Persinger
Article Source: WVU