The low down on the three big 3D printing projects that NASA awarded this week

NASA LogoThis week, NASA handed out its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) funding awards for 2014. These programmes finance and support the research, development and demonstration of innovative technologies that can further NASA’s work and ‘have significant potential for successful commercialisation.’

It’s common knowledge that NASA has something of a crush on 3D printing. While, currently, spaceflight is tethered by the need to stock up the craft with all the necessary equipment, supplies and replacement parts before it leaves Earth, on-orbit 3D printing would allow astronauts to print what they need when they need it. This could translate to longer missions and journeys that probe far deeper into the galaxy.

Therefore, it’s unsurprising to see that three of this year’s awards have been given to major additive manufacturing projects, two that involve the recycling of filament on-orbit and one that aims to develop hybrid plastic and metal printing on-orbit. All three could represent major steps forward for both manufacturing and space travel.

Made in Space NASA 3D printing

Made in Space’s R3DO for ABS filament recycling

Made in Space is a California-based company that has long been associated with NASA. In fact, it is the 3D printer developed as part of Made in Space’s Zero G experiment that will be launched into orbit this year and is likely to become the first device ever to manufacture parts in space.

Now, NASA has offered its Small Business Innovation Research award to Made in Space in order to develop a system to recycle ABS pieces into filament that can be re-printed during space travel. The award is worth $130 million in technology development over a 6 month period.

3D printing made in space

This will be used to develop Made in Space’s already patent-pending R3DO system that transforms ABS parts on ISS into filament in microgravity.

R3DO will also offers a low power heating system, microgravity stabilisation, material control, breaker plate migration, material-filter interactions, cooling characteristics and safety mechanisms. It is already in its fourth prototype iteration, with an eventual goal to build a recycler that can break down an ABS part up to 6 cm x 12 cm x 6 cm in size and turn it into 1.75 mm diameter filament.

There are numerous issues to address, the obvious one being that this process must take place in microgravity, as well as things like bulging of feedstock while the filament is being created.

Made in Space teams up with University of Florida to create hybrid plastic/ metal filament

The Small Business Technology Transfer award has also been extended to Made in Space for another project that is being developed in collaboration with University of Florida.

University of Florida NASA 3D printing

Named MicroCast, the goal of the project is to develop a method of creating electronics printed from a metal/ polymer hybrid material. It is hoped this system can be adapted to produce micro-well sensors. NASA describes it like this:

The process revolves around creating a polymeric part through additive manufacturing, leaving voice and trace capillaries. Once the polymer structures are completed, molten metal is injected into these trace capillaries, which create a path to the voids in the printed parts. Capillary forces cause the liquid metal to wick into the capillary channels, filling the voids before solidifying. Unlike competing metal additive manufacturing techniques, the parts can be created with 100% dense metal elements that have low surface roughness and are completely compatible with the surrounding polymer.

NASA has awarded $125,000 to the project for the next six months.

Tethers Unlimited develops another 3D printing filament recycling process

NASA has also backed Washington-based Tethers Unlimited under the SBIR award scheme. A company devoted to developing advanced technologies to enable transformative capabilities and dramatic cost savings for missions in space, sea, earth and air, Tethers Unlimited are working on a system that will recycle left over plastic for re-printing on-orbit.

3D printing NASA Tethers Unlimited

Called the Positrusion Filament Recycling System, NASA believes it will minimise the need to resupply or store excess feedstock on missions and offer more flexibility. Tethers Unlimited says its aim is to:

develop a filament extruding machine that uses a process called Positrusion that is designed from the ground up for optimally producing small batches of positively controlled round filament directly out of arbitrarily shaped scraps of ABS plastic, while meeting requirements for operation on the ISS.

NASA spare parts 3D printined

The researchers at Tethers Unlimited also believe it will be suitable for commercial and industrial purposes.

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