NASA Awards Grant to Tethers Unlimited for Microgravity 3D Printer/Filament Recycler

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download (11)Two of my favorite things to write about are outer space and recycling – so imagine how excited I am about recycling in outer space. Last year, we wrote about a company called Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (TUI), a Washington-based technology firm that was awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from NASA to further develop their Positrusion Recycler for use on the International Space Station. The Positrusion, which was developed specifically with the ISS in mind, recycles plastic waste into filament in a process that, according to TUI, is as easy as operating a microwave.

While commercial versions of the Positrusion system are still in development, NASA has evidently been very satisfied with the technology, as they’ve just awarded Firmamentum, a division of TUI, a Phase III SBIR for the creation of a combination 3D printer/recycler for the ISS. The device, dubbed the Refabricator, will be an experiment in closed-cycle manufacturing in outer space, and NASA hopes that it can eventually be used on missions to Mars.

“On a manned mission to Mars, the astronauts must bring everything they need with them,” said Jesse Cushing, Principal Investigator for the Refabricator project. “Due to the incredibly high cost of launching mass to Mars, carrying every tool or replacement part that they might possibly need simply isn’t affordable. The Refabricator will demonstrate the ability to recycle plastic parts and waste to make new parts and tools on-demand.

“This capability will enable the astronauts to use material that would otherwise be waste to maintain their spacecraft and adapt to unforeseen challenges on the Martian surface. For example, if Mark Watney had a Refabricator, he could have easily recycled his food trays and other plastic waste into the tools and parts he needed to survive, and The Martian would have been much less of a nail-biter.”

MarsMDRS-Hi-Res-cropped-e1414953022424-580x291

[Image: Mars Society MRDS]

Less of a blockbuster, too, likely, but on a real-life mission to Mars or elsewhere in space, the last thing you want is award-winning drama. Like so much of what NASA and other major international space agencies are working on these days, it’s all leading up to Mars, and the installation of the Refabricator on the ISS will allow researchers to find out how many times plastic can be recycled in a microgravity environment before the material begins to break down.

160622-refab-630x431While there are lots of plastic and filament recyclers out there already, the Refabricator, which will integrate Positrusion technology with a 3D printer, is designed to minimize material degradation and to produce filament to standard specifications without needing much time or attention from the astronauts. So far, Firmamentum has tested the device for about four manufacturing cycles, but the next step is to see how it does in zero gravity. The launch of the Refabricator to the ISS is tentatively expected to happen in early 2017.

“The Refabricator demonstration is a key advance towards our vision of implementing a truly sustainable in-space manufacturing ecosystem,” said Dr. Rob Hoyt, CEO of TUI/Firmamentum. “With this technology the astronauts will be able to process our recyclable launch packaging materials into 3D printer filament, manufacture and recycle food-safe utensils, and turn what is now inconvenient waste into feedstock to help build the next generation of space systems. We believe these solutions will help dramatically reduce the cost and risks for NASA and private space exploration missions.”

TUI and Firmamentum are hoping that the device will also find a market down here on Earth. Discuss further in the 3D Recycler forum over at 3DPB.com.

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