Scientists from West Virginia University believe 3D printing in microgravity will eventually be able to help colonize outer space. Researchers are shedding light on the potential of 3D printing to produce essential materials and equipment on spaceships, the moon, or Mars, ultimately reducing the need for costly and resource-intensive Earth-based transportation.
As humanity’s ambitions for exploring outer space continue to expand, the challenge of sustaining long-term missions in space becomes more pressing. One of the key issues is the need for a sustainable source of materials and equipment that can be manufactured onsite. The Microgravity Research Team at WVU has been investigating how 3D printing technology can address this challenge.
“A spacecraft can’t carry infinite resources, so you have to maintain and recycle what you have and 3D printing enables that,” says study lead author Jacob Cordonier, a doctoral student in mechanical and aerospace engineering at the WVU Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, in a university release. “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.”
Researchers focused on using titania foam, a versatile material with potential applications ranging from blocking ultraviolet (UV) radiation to water purification. To understand how a microgravity environment affects 3D printing, they conducted experiments in a simulated weightless setting. Their findings revealed that gravity plays a critical role in shaping the 3D-printed filaments, showing differences between microgravity and Earth gravity conditions.
“The research also allows us to see gravity’s role in how the foam comes out of the 3D printer nozzle and spreads onto a substrate,” notes Cordonier. “We’ve seen differences in the filament shape when printed in microgravity compared to Earth gravity. And by changing additional variables in the printing process, such as writing speed and extrusion pressure, we’re able to paint a clearer image of how all these parameters interact to tune the shape of the filament.”
The experiments are a crucial step towards realizing the concept of “in-situ resource utilization,” which involves extracting resources from celestial bodies like the moon to manufacture equipment and materials for space missions.
“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,” explains study contributor Konstantinos Sierros, associate professor and associate chair for research in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at WVU.
One of the primary applications of their research is the development of shields against harmful UV radiation in space. On Earth, our atmosphere provides some protection from UV rays, but in space, there is no such shielding.
“In space or on the moon, there’s nothing to mitigate it besides your spacesuit or whatever coating is on your spacecraft or habitat,” says Cordonier.
To test the effectiveness of their titania foam in blocking UV radiation, the team conducted experiments where they exposed the material to various light wavelengths. Their findings showed that the foam effectively blocked almost all UV light while allowing very little visible light to pass through.
Additionally, the titania foam demonstrated photocatalytic properties, meaning it can use light to promote chemical reactions, such as purifying air or water, which could be vital for sustaining life on long-term space missions.
The research at WVU is also fostering the next generation of space scientists and engineers. Undergraduate students have actively participated in the project, taking on roles in hardware development, materials development, automation, and data analysis. They have published peer-reviewed scientific articles and presented their findings at conferences.
“This was an amazing experience,” says student researcher Renee Garneau said. “It was the first time I participated in a research project that didn’t have predetermined results like what I have experienced in research-based classes. It was really rewarding to analyze the data and come to conclusions that weren’t based on fixed expectations. Our approach can help extend space exploration, allowing astronauts to use resources they already have available to them without necessitating a resupply mission.”
The study is published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.