Early last week, NASA announced the winners of the second level of the second phase of the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, a multiphase competition that began in 2015 and challenges participants to 3D print habitable structures that could potentially be used as housing on the moon or Mars, as well as here on Earth in areas with limited access to traditional construction materials. The competition is all about using what’s available, including recyclable materials and local soil – specifically, soil from Mars, although the competitors have to make do with simulated Martian soil for now.
As the teams progress through the phases (there will be three altogether), one team has placed among the winners multiple times. Architectural firms Foster + Partners and Branch Technology have paired up to great success, placing third and winning $63,783 in Phase 2: Level 2 after taking first place and winning $85,930 in Phase 2: Level 1.
So what’s their secret? Success in the competition is all about quality design using advanced materials, and Foster + Partners and Branch Technology have been relying on the help of Techmer PM, a Tennessee-based company that has been developing and manufacturing polymer additives and colorants for more than 30 years. According to Branch Technology project lead Melody Rees, Techmer PM’s expertise in materials design has been “vital” to the team’s success throughout each phase of the competition – and Techmer PM has benefited from working with the architectural firms, as well.
“We want to congratulate Branch Technology and Foster + Partners on their achievements. What they have accomplished in this competition is incredibly exciting, and we are delighted to be part of it. Working with Branch has allowed Techmer PM to design materials for applications that we are only now starting to imagine,” said John Manuck, CEO of Techmer PM.
While the competition challenges the participants to create their structures “with or without recyclable materials,” it seems that using recyclable materials is a definite advantage. Techmer PM is big on recycling and sustainability efforts, which may have contributed to Team Foster/Branch’s success.
“This competition is highly dependent on advanced materials design solutions,” said Rees.
“Recyclable plastics were used in the top three scoring teams, indicating that a thermoplastic concrete material may be viable for 3D-printing habitats on Mars,” said Rob Meuller, senior technologist for advanced projects development at the Swamp Works laboratory at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and a subject matter expert for the competition.
“Thermoplastics, which are plastic polymers that become moldable when heated, could be obtained from discarded packaging material or even created on Mars using the carbon dioxide atmosphere and hydrogen from water found in the soil. Such concrete materials could also have applications on Earth while using discarded plastic trash.”
Phase 2, Level 2 of the challenge involved the creation of a 3D printed beam, which was then subjected to bend testing. Scores were assigned based on the beam’s material composition and its maximum load at failure. Phase 2, Level 3 will require participants to 3D print a dome structure, which will be subjected to crush testing in a competition that will take place at the Caterpillar Edwards Demonstration & Learning Center near Peoria, Illinois. The event will be open to the public on August 25th and 26th through registration.
Then it’s on to Phase 3. While the competition so far has involved producing specific components of housing structures, Phase 3 is going to be all about autonomous creation of an entire habitat through automated 3D printing technology. That’s when things should start to get really interesting, and that’s where the big money is involved – Phase 3 carries a $1.5 million prize.
“These competitors are working to advance critical systems needed for human space exploration,” said Lex Akers, dean of the Caterpillar College of Engineering and Technology at Bradley University, which is running the competition along with NASA. “We are on the edge of developing new, innovative, and disruptive ideas that could change our future. This type of work will allow us to explore new ideas as we partner in creating solutions for our world and beyond.”
Discuss in the Techmer PM forum at 3DPB.com.
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