NOV 01, 2023 10:20 AM PDT

3D Printing in Microgravity: WVU's Breakthroughs for Space Exploration

A recent study published in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces investigates the potential for using 3D printing in weightlessness, also known as microgravity, with titania foam. This study was conducted by a team of researchers in the Microgravity Research Team at West Virginia University (WVU) and holds the potential for scientists and astronauts to better understand how they can produce vital components on long-term space missions to the Moon and even Mars.

Study co-authors, Renee Garneau, Trenton Morris and Ronan Butts, who are also WVU engineering students and Microgravity Research Team (MRT) members, seen testing a 3D printer the MRT lab, which is designed to operate in microgravity like the International Space Station, the Moon, or Mars. (Credit: WVU Photo/Brian Persinger)

“A spacecraft can’t carry infinite resources, so you have to maintain and recycle what you have and 3D printing enables that,” said Jacob Cordonier, who is a mechanical and aerospace engineering PhD student at the WVU Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources and lead author of the study. “You can print only what you need, reducing waste. Our study looked at whether a 3D-printed titanium dioxide foam could protect against ultraviolet radiation in outer space and purify water.” 

The Microgravity Research Team is led by Dr. Konstantinos Sierros, who is an associate professor and associate chair for research in WVU’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. This research with titania foam began in 2016 with flights on a Boeing 727 where students used the 20 seconds of weightlessness during the parabolic flight to print lines of foam on glass slides but has since transitioned into a laboratory setting at WVU.

Through this, the team has demonstrated that such 3D-printed objects can be used to both purify water and protect astronauts and equipment from the harmful effects of ultraviolet light, since both the Moon and Mars lack Earth’s protective ozone layer and magnetic field that shields us from such harmful, space-based phenomena. The goal is to provide a cheap and easy method to help future astronauts on long-term missions.

Image of the custom 3D printer for microgravity experiments developed by the Microgravity Research Team at WVU. The printer operates by spraying foam out of the nozzle (right) onto substrates housed in the sample holder (left). (Credit: WVU Photo/Brian Persinger)

“Transporting even a kilogram of material in space is expensive and storage is limited, so we’re looking into what is called ‘in-situ resource utilization,’” said Dr. Sierros, who is also a co-author on the study. “We know the moon contains deposits of minerals very similar to the titanium dioxide used to make our foam, so the idea is you don’t have to transport equipment from here to space because we can mine those resources on the moon and print the equipment that’s necessary for a mission.”

In-situ resource utilization, also known as ISRU, is the practice of using available resources to manufacture additional resources that are vital to mission success on long-term space missions. Examples of using ISRU on the Moon include using water ice for oxygen and fuel or the lunar regolith to make bricks. For Mars, NASA’s Perseverance rover recently demonstrated how carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere can be used to make oxygen.

“Our approach can help extend space exploration, allowing astronauts to use resources they already have available to them without necessitating a resupply mission,” said Renee Garneau, who is a WVU undergraduate engineering student and a co-author on the study. Garneau says she envisions the team’s 3D printer conducting its work on a six-month stay on the International Space Station.

Study co-author, WVU undergraduate student, and MRT team member, Renee Garneau, seen working with the 3D printer in the MRT lab. (Credit: WVU Photo/Brian Persinger)

What new discoveries will researchers make about 3D printing in microgravity, and how will this technology help future astronauts on long-term space missions in the coming years and decades? Only time will tell, and this is why we science!

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

Sources: ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, EurekAlert!, WVU Today, WVU Today (1), Labroots, Labroots (1)

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of “Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey”.
You May Also Like
Loading Comments...