A team of students from Valley Christian High School in San José, California, will send an experiment to the International Space Station (ISS) in February 2023. As part of the ISS Research Lab program, the students created 3D-printed millimeter-scale metal lattices needed for their experiment on capillary action in microgravity. Once in orbit, the results should provide detailed insights into the effect of microgravity on the water-absorbing properties of lattices.
Led by senior and junior students Rohan Sachdeva and Daisy Zeng, the project is expected to open new technical possibilities in future outer space applications such as gas filtration, aerosol sample collection, and temperature management, as well as help control the location of the water in microgravity, which could be helpful for plant growth.
As part of the ISS Research Lab program, high school students are encouraged to collaborate to conceptualize, create, and conduct their experiments for NASA approval. Each team submits draft documentation and data analysis for review to be installed on the ISS for 30 days. This hands-on experience offers students real-world situations to navigate using technical skills, creativity, and the latest technology.
ISS for teens
To make sure their experiment on capillary action in microgravity works as planned in orbit, the Valley Christian High School group first tried to make the lattices from photopolymer resin but soon realized it was not an ideal match for the requirements of space flight due to their lack of resistance to vibrations, low temperatures, and heat. Instead, metal offered a better set of properties for the ISS experiment. Still, unfortunately, the lattice design was not printable with conventional metal powder-bed fusion and binder-jetting 3D printing technologies.
Considering that the lattices had struts as thin as 0.5mm in diameter, the students turned to micro-stereolithography (SLA), which seemed to be the only process able to produce parts with sufficient accuracy. Attempting to get the thin structures printed using micro-SLA and resin, the group asked service bureau Qualified3D for help.
However, metal remained the preferred material to meet all the needed requirements. The team soon discovered the potential of the relatively new Lithography-based Metal Manufacturing (LMM) technology, which is especially suitable for producing micro metal parts with high precision.
Luckily for the team, Qualified3D has a partnership with German startup MetShape, the co-developer of the LMM technology and a spinout of Pforzheim University that last year became an AM Ventures portfolio company. To 3D print the lattices, the team used a combination of metal powder and a photosensitive polymer binder as the starting material. This so-called feedstock is applied to a building platform and selectively crosslinked from above using mask exposure to UV light. Layer by layer, a green part is created. This green part is then debinded and sintered.
Aside from an extraordinary surface quality, LMM technology enables new applications that are currently not economically producible. Other advantages include high resolution and precision, resulting in parts with extremely thin walls (125µm) and smooth surfaces (2-5µm surface roughness before polishing) in various metals, including stainless steel and titanium.
The students in the ISS Research Lab received their stainless steel parts within a few weeks and are now looking forward to using them for their microgravity experiment. Sometime in mid-February, the project package should be launched up to the ISS and begin returning data by March.
One of the team members, eleventh grader David Kou, said that even though they requested many changes to Qualified3D, the company always responded quickly to their requests and questions and delivered the parts on time.
For Qualified3D and MetShape, this was an ideal opportunity to support the ISS Research Lab Program and contribute to realizing an innovative experiment destined for space, indicated the companies.
Similarly, MetShape commented: “We are very proud to announce that our approach to sinter-based additive manufacturing enabled us to deliver 3d printed metal parts that are used for experiments on the ISS. In addition, American high school kids recognized the potential of the LMM technology for manufacturing the needed complex metal micro parts.”
Valley Christian High School has a long-standing history with NASA and the ISS. Already in 2012, students designed four microlab anti-gravity experiments for the ISS. They reached orbit on March 2012, setting a new world record. Three years later, the high school made space history again when two of their designs were 3D printed using a manufacturing device from Made In Space (now part of Redwire) installed at the ISS, becoming the first students ever to 3D print objects in orbit.
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