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Managing Editor  | May 2017

Northwestern engineers exploring 3-D printing from lunar materials

The Tissue Engineering and Additive Manufacturing (TEAM) Laboratory at Northwestern University is exploring new processes for humans to manufacture living quarters for a colonization of the moon and Mars by demonstrating that lunar and Martian materials can be used to 3-D print structures.



Tools 3-D printed from lunar materials.
(Northwestern University)


According to a report from the school, the engineers, led by Dr. Ramille Shah, have created an extension to their “3D-painting process,” which has been used to create hypereleastic bones, 3-D graphene and carbon nanotubes, and metals and alloys.


The article explained, “Shah’s research uses NASA-approved lunar and Martian dust simulants, which have similar compositions, particle shapes, and sizes to the dusts found on lunar and Martian surfaces. Shah’s team created the lunar and Martian 3D paints using the respective dusts, a series of simple solvents, and biopolymer, then 3D printed them with a simple extrusion process. The resulting structures are over 90 percent dust by weight.”


Although the engineers are using rock material to build the structures, the resulting 3-D printed material is flexible, elastic, and durable. The article compared the material to rubber.


“This is the first example of rubber-like or soft materials resulting from lunar and Martian simulant materials,” the article noted. “The material can be cut, rolled, folded, and otherwise shaped after being 3D painted, if desired.”


The engineers are now working on ways to turn the soft, rubber-like material into hardened ceramics by heating it in a furnace.


The research was recently published in Scientific Reports. The abstract stated:


“Here, we present a comprehensive approach for creating robust, elastic, designer Lunar and Martian regolith simulant (LRS and MRS, respectively) architectures using ambient condition, extrusion-based 3D-printing of regolith simulant inks. The LRS and MRS powders are characterized by distinct, highly inhomogeneous morphologies and sizes, where LRS powder particles are highly irregular and jagged and MRS powder particles are rough, but primarily rounded.


“The inks are synthesized via simple mixing of evaporant, surfactant, and plasticizer solvents, polylactic-co-glycolic acid (30% by solids volume), and regolith simulant powders (70% by solids volume). Both LRS and MRS inks exhibit similar rheological and 3D-printing characteristics, and can be 3D-printed at linear deposition rates of 1–150 mm/s using 300 μm to 1.4 cm-diameter nozzles.


“The resulting LRS and MRS 3D-printed materials exhibit similar, but distinct internal and external microstructures and material porosity (~20–40%). These microstructures contribute to the rubber-like quasi-static and cyclic mechanical properties of both materials, with young’s moduli ranging from 1.8 to 13.2 MPa and extension to failure exceeding 250% over a range of strain rates (10–1−102 min−1).


“Finally, we discuss the potential for LRS and MRS ink components to be reclaimed and recycled, as well as be synthesized in resource-limited, extraterrestrial environments.”


As the Northwestern article noted, even though colonization of the moon or Mars may be many years away, it is best to start that planning now and this research is another step forward in being able to create living arrangements on other planets.

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