ESA 3D Prints Sturdy Bricks from Sunlight and Moon Dust

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In the future, we will live in houses made from sunlight and moon dust. Sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale, doesn’t it? It could be reality for some of us, though. We’ve heard quite a bit lately about potential future travel to the moon and Mars, and it doesn’t involve just dropping in to say hi – it involves staying for a while and actually living and researching on our neighboring rocks. Figuring out how to construct places to live and research is the big issue, but it’s looking like 3D printing is going to be the answer.

The European Space Agency (ESA), among other organizations, has been experimenting with 3D printing objects and structures from simulated lunar and Martian soil. The soil, taken from volcanoes, is similar enough in composition to the extraterrestrial soil that it makes for good practice, allowing us to see if we can actually 3D print our homes and tools in space someday. So far, it’s looking promising.

The goal is for astronauts to have to bring as little as possible with them when they do travel to the moon, so a recent experiment tried improving upon recent ones, which required a binding material to get the simulated moon dust to harden after being 3D printed. In the most recent experiment, ESA scientists 3D printed bricks from pure simulated lunar soil, no additives, and cured them using nothing but concentrated sunlight via a special furnace.

“We took simulated lunar material and cooked it in a solar furnace,” said materials engineer Advenit Makaya, who is overseeing the project. “This was done on a 3D printer table, to bake successive 0.1 mm layers of moondust at 1000°C. We can complete a 20 x 10 x 3 cm brick for building in around five hours.”

The scientists used a solar furnace at the DLR German Aerospace Center facility in Cologne. The furnace has 147 curved mirrors that focus sunlight into a high-temperature beam that effectively sinters the grains of soil together. Because the sun can be elusive in that region of Europe, however, the furnace has a backup in an array of xenon lamps – similar to those found in movie theater projectors – that simulate sunlight if needed.

The solar furnace in Cologne [Image: DLR]

The bricks 3D printed from the simulated moon dust have the strength of gypsum and will be subjected to extensive mechanical testing. The process isn’t perfect so far; some of the bricks have shown warping around the edges, which cool faster than the center.

“We’re looking how to manage this effect, perhaps by occasionally accelerating the printing speed so that less heat accumulates within the brick,” said Makaya. “But for now this project is a proof of concept, showing that such a lunar construction method is indeed feasible.”

Further study will be conducted as part of the RegoLight project, which is being funded by the ESA’s Horizon 2020 program.

“Our demonstration took place in standard atmospheric conditions, but RegoLight will probe the printing of bricks in representative lunar conditions: vacuum and high-temperature extremes,” said Makaya.

If the project succeeds, it could mean a completely sustainable means of production on the moon and even Mars. Astronauts would only need to bring a 3D printer and solar concentrating device with them, rather than binding material that would eventually need to be replenished.

“For a mission like building a base on the Moon surface, in-situ resource utilisation will certainly be one of the most important enabling technologies. This result offers the opportunity of a complete sustainable approach,” said Tommaso Ghidini, head of the ESA’s Materials and Processes. “Back on Earth, 3D printing of civil structures using solar power and in-situ resources could support rapid construction of post-disaster emergency shelters, removing long, costly and often inefficient supply chains.”

So while our future on Earth may not be all sunlight and moon dust, this approach may indeed lead to some improvements – not only in space but here at home as well. Watch the 3D printing process below:

Discuss in the ESA forum at 3DPB.com.

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