From the Military to Mars: 3D Printing with Whatever you’ve Got

Prosthetics, tools, homes, cars—the possibilities of 3D printing are vast and exciting, even more so as researchers develop ways to use on-site materials in remote locations for printing.

Broken down in combat? Don’t wait for a supply truck, print what you need in a few hours from recycled bottles and cardboard boxes. Headed to the moon? Ditch the spare parts—turn that rocky soil into your new home with just a printer.

We’re not quite there yet, but recent developments indicate that we’re making strides in that direction!

Image credit: Photo by Ines Álvarez Fdez on Unsplash.

Printing Military Equipment from Recyclables

Soldiers on remote bases and in combat zones can sometimes wait days or weeks for replacement parts when a key piece of equipment breaks down, leaving them vulnerable the whole time. One solution is to 3D print replacement parts when possible. In fact, some units already have 3D printers for this purpose. However, this still requires supplies—the raw materials necessary for printing.

With 3D-printers, soldiers could soon use recycled bottles and other waste materials to make vital parts, such as this vehicle radio bracket.
Image credit: Nicole Ander/U.S. Army Research Laboratory.

This week at the American Chemical Society meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, Nicole Zander from the U.S. Army Research Lab is presenting research on how waste materials commonly found on military bases—like used water bottles, milk containers, and cardboard—can be recycled into feedstock for 3D printers.

In collaboration with the U.S. Marine Corps, Zander and her colleagues performed mechanical testing on filaments of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastics, used for water bottles and soda bottles, and on parts 3D printed from those filaments. Their work shows that recycled PET filaments are strong and stable enough that they could replace the standard commercial filaments used in 3D printing for many military applications.

The team also explored 3D printing with other types of plastics, like the polystyrene used in plastic utensils and the polypropylene used in yogurt containers. On their own, these plastics don’t work well, but the team found that by blending them with other waste materials commonly found on bases (like cardboard), it’s possible to create composite filaments with mechanical properties that do work well for 3D printing.

The idea is that when a piece breaks or goes missing, a soldier could grab some nearby waste, process it into filaments, feed them into a 3D printer, and have a replacement part ready within a few hours. This would require some training and machinery, but would it lessen the time units spend operating with sub-par equipment and likely result in significant cost savings—reducing the costs associated with trucking in replacements, storing spare parts, or purchasing and storing the usual 3D printer feedstock. And as a bonus, it reduces waste too. Zander is now designing a mobile trailer to facilitate this process of turning trash into much needed equipment.

There may be benefits beyond the battlefield, too—it’s a common occurrence for new technology like this to be rolled out for military purposes, and then later find its way into the hands of the general public. Imagine a “fab lab” in your city that let you take the middleman out of recycling by bringing in old bottles and boxes, and turning them into…just about anything you can imagine!

Printing Habitats in Space from Indigenous Materials

Transporting building materials, spare parts, and construction tools to the moon, or anywhere off-Earth, is really expensive. That’s why 3D printing has captured the attention of space agencies and companies like Made in Space—the thought of using resources that already exist in those locations to build shelters, equipment, and replacement parts is appealing. It could be the key to establishing sustainable habitats on the moon or Mars. The fewer manufacturing tools we need to bring off-world, the better—and 3D printers are extremely versatile tools.

Team Zopherus from Rogers, Arkansas, is the first-place winner of Phase 3: Level 1 of NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge. Video credit: NASA.

NASA is turning to citizen inventors for help meeting this challenge. Hosted by NASA and Bradley University, the 3D Habitat Challenge is an ongoing multi-step contest to design and print a habitat for deep space using indigenous materials. Now in its final phase, which comes with a $2 million prize, teams must design and fabricate 1,000 square feet of living space for astronauts on Mars that includes plans for life support, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and other systems, and is capable of supporting four astronauts for one year.

Just a few weeks ago, the top teams in Level 1 of this final phase were announced—they split a $100,000 prize for digital representations of a house on Mars. “[The teams] are not just designing structures, they are designing habitats that will allow our space explorers to live and work on other planets,” according to a statement by Monsi Roman, program manager for NASA’s Centennial Challenges. The contest culminates in an on-site build in Peoria, Illinois next spring.

The winning designs are fascinating and futuristic-looking (view them here). Astronauts heading to such a habitat might do well to 3D print something personal that makes their new dwelling feel just a little more like home. That’s the subject of another ongoing contest, this one by the European Space Agency (ESA). The contest poses this question:

What’s your idea to 3D print on the Moon to make it feel like home?

A life-size replica of your pet? A palm tree? A model of a favorite keepsake? Submit a short explanation and a sketch to the ESA of your answer by September 23, 2018 and you could win a 3D-printed version of your entry! The competition is open to people of all ages and nationalities, and is part of a larger project exploring the use of 3D printing to build a habitat on the moon.

Kendra Redmond

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