Researchers use 3-D printer to make parts from moon rock

November 28, 2012

Imagine landing on the moon or Mars, putting rocks through a 3-D printer and making something useful – like a needed wrench or replacement part.

"It sounds like science fiction, but now it's really possible," says Amit Bandyopadhyay, professor in the School of Mechanical and at Washington State University.

Bandyopadhyay and a group of colleagues recently published a paper in Rapid Prototyping Journal demonstrating how to print parts using materials from the moon.

Bandyopadhyay and Susmita Bose, professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, are well known researchers in the area of three-dimensional printing, creating bone-like materials for .

In 2010, researchers from NASA initiated discussion with Bandyopadhyay, asking if their research team might be able to print 3-D objects from moon rock. Because of the tremendous expense of , researchers strive to limit what space ships have to carry. Establishment of a lunar or Martian outpost would require using the materials that are on hand for construction or repairs. That's where the 3-D fabrication technology might come in.

Three-dimensional fabrication technology, also known as , allows researchers to produce complex three dimensional objects directly from computer-aided design (CAD) models, printing the material layer by layer. In this case, the material is heated using a laser to and prints out like melting candle wax to a desired shape.

To test the idea, NASA researchers provided Bandyopadhyay and Bose with 10 pounds of raw simulant, an imitation moon rock that is used for research purposes.

The WSU researchers were concerned about how the moon , which is made of silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron and magnesium oxides, would melt, but they found it behaved similarly to silica. And, they built a few simple shapes.

The researchers are the first to demonstrate the ability to fabricate parts using the moon-like material. They sent their pieces to NASA.

"It doesn't look fantastic, but you can make something out of it," says Bandyopadhyay.

Using additive manufacturing, the material could also be tailored, the researchers say. If you want a stronger building material, for instance, you could perhaps use some with earth-based additives.

"The advantage of additive manufacturing is that you can control the composition as well as the geometry," says Bose. In the future, the researchers hope to show that the lunar material could be used to do remote repairs.

"It is an exciting science fiction story, but maybe we'll hear about it in the next few years," says Bandyopadhyay. "As long as you can have additive manufacturing set up, you may be able to scoop up and print whatever you want. It's not that far-fetched."

Explore further: NASA researchers looking to take additive manufacturing into space

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4.5 / 5 (2) Nov 28, 2012
If they can make bricks, they can build a structure.

Building in a lunar cave would be a better idea however.
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 28, 2012
Check out this guy:
His printer uses nothing but sunlight to do the sintering, though he did pick a desert with a high-silica sand.
1 / 5 (3) Nov 28, 2012
If it was me. I'd have gone to the desert and printed a whole lot of stuff, then packed up and left it all there for someone to find. It would be even funnier to do this on the Moon.
3 / 5 (2) Nov 29, 2012
I mentioned this as a way of sending our machines ahead of us into space in physorg some months back and was called out for being a nut-case.
These are just the first baby steps. Once we get a mini refinery there supplying more refined materials to the printers, the advantages will become obvious. Just because we cant see it happening tomorrow, does not mean it wont happen. And not necessarily by the crumbling remains of the USA either.
5 / 5 (2) Nov 29, 2012
Just because we cant see it happening tomorrow, does not mean it wont happen.

The point is always: What is the easiest way to do it?
Sure you can wait a long time until we have fully autonomous, self repairing, multicapable factory robots that we can shoot to the moon or asteroids.
But if it's easier to do it with manual labor (even with the added complexity of having to maintain human life) then that's the way we should do it first.

Once autonomous robots catch up they can replace those efforts.

This is much like in manufacturing: You start off with not-so-efficient processes and manual labor because that is always better than having no process at all for the time being. Later you put in place better processes and robots.
1 / 5 (1) Nov 29, 2012
@ NOM - That is pretty cool!

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