How a NASA Supplier & Thermoplastic Firm’s Material Allow 3D Printing in Space

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1000px-braskem_logo-svgBraskem, one of the largest thermoplastic resin producers in the Americas, entered into a strategic partnership with official NASA supplier Made In Space to develop a material called “I’m Green plastic” which enables astronauts to 3D print spare parts in space.

The green 3D printing polymer product designed and developed by Braskem is used by astronauts to supply the International Space Station (ISS) with various components and spare parts for construction, distribution and repair by utilizing the 3D printing technology.

According to Akerman, a Miami-based law firm with offices located throughout the US that played a key role in the settlement of agreement between the two firms, the Green Polyethylene is made from sugarcane and is used on the 3D printer’s bed made of Braskem’s ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene called UTEC.

Akerman further emphasized that NASA previously requested for the development of an on-demand manufacturing system which allows the ISS to receive spare parts or products upon their request.

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The International Space Station

“NASA previously defined on-demand manufacturing in space as one of the advances essential for a future mission to Mars and other deep-space human exploration. The new 3D printing system allows astronauts to receive digital designs of the parts and then produce them on the ISS,” said the Akerman team in a press release.

In a flight to space, cargo storage and space are crucial as they limit the amount of materials or products that can be shipped and delivered to the ISS. Thus, a more cost-efficient and time-saving method of delivery is to create necessary spare parts or products in space, to ensure that the storage and cargo of space shuttles aren’t wasted.

The green polymer 3D printing filament from Braskem allows astronauts to 3D print objects in zero gravity. Instead of bringing a cargo full of products that may be left unused, Braskem and its partner firm Made In Space state that 3D printing objects in space upon request is more practical for astronauts, the International Space Station and NASA.

To help Braskem’s 3D printing technology and material come into fruition, Akerman Miami Partner Felipe Berer and Chicago Partner Stacy Baim facilitated the contract, settling the agreement between Braskem and Made In Space.

Baim emphasized that the deal between the two companies was the first of its kind and was difficult to close, due to various regulations and requirements that a NASA partner or a contracted firm have to comply with. As a NASA partner, Made In Space had to ensure that the contract with Braskem does not overstep its partnership with NASA.

“The process challenged our Akerman team to anticipate things that have never been done before in places that have never been seen before. We factored these important considerations into our negotiations and were able to craft an agreement that met our client’s objectives while maintaining compliance with NASA guidelines,” said Baim.

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The Made In Space 3D Printer

Berer also noted that the agreement was special for both companies and NASA, due to historic impact.

“This agreement joined Braskem’s greatest innovation in green polymers with the first space technology to print 3D objects in zero gravity,” said Berer.

In an interview with Tech Insider, space station engineer Ravi Margasahayam recently confirmed that it costs around $500 million to $1.5 billion to launch a space shuttle to the ISS. He further noted that the multi-billion dollar deal NASA has with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences means that it costs at least $43,180 per pound for Orbital Science’s Cygnus to send cargo into the ISS and around $27,000 per pound of cargo for SpaceX rockets. To put that into perspective, a bottle of water could cost anywhere from $9,1000 to $43,180 and an espresso machine could at least $1.9 million to deliver to the ISS. Astronauts need their espresso, too.

Considering the costs of NASA, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to send cargo to the ISS, the reason behind the demand for per-request manufacturing is fairly apparent. While it is difficult to calculate the precise amount of money Braskem’s technology could save, if a material like I’m Green plastic that is lightweight can be carried into space to create more dense and robust aircraft parts, construction materials and spare components, it could potentially save billions of dollars. 3D printing of spare parts has helped astronauts out since the first 3D printer was installed on the ISS, allowing for creative options from raw materials.

With the partnership in place, Made In Space and Braskem will continue to develop and improve its 3D printing system and materials to ensure that the ISS will be able to receive high-quality and robust products for various use cases. The Made In Space team also has its own set of 3D printers and is investing several 3D printing methods, which will most likely be used in the International Space Station. Discuss in the Braskem forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source: Akerman / Images: NASA, Made In Space]
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