NASA Backs Project for 3D Printing Space Sensors

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NASA granted $300,000 to Florida State University (FSU) and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) to pioneer a project using 3D printing to develop cutting-edge sensors capable of withstanding the harsh extremes of space. Vital for space missions, these devices aim to boost the durability and accuracy of spacecraft monitoring systems dramatically. This project, titled “Additive Manufacturing of Electronics for NASA Applications,” is led by the College of Engineering, a joint venture between FSU and FAMU, which highlights their partnership’s role in pushing the boundaries of space technology.

A multidisciplinary research team led by Chemical & Biomedical Engineering Professor Subramanian Ramakrishnan produced silver ink-based strain sensors for NASA’s various space programs. These sensors are crucial for monitoring the structural integrity of spacecraft. They measure how materials stretch and compress under stress, ensuring that critical parts of the spacecraft remain safe and functional during missions. These sensors can accurately transmit changes in real time by using conductive silver ink, helping predict and prevent potential failures.

The team designed sensors that outperform conventional strain sensors using a 3D printing process coupled with a laser annealing method. Laser annealing involves using a focused laser beam to heat the printed silver ink, improving its electrical and mechanical properties without melting it. According to the researchers, this technique enhances sensor performance, resulting in devices with high gauge factors—a measure of a sensor’s sensitivity to strain. This increased sensitivity allows the sensors to detect changes more accurately under stress or strain.

Strain sensors at the High-Performance Materials Institute in the Materials Research Building of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering in Tallahassee, Florida. Image courtesy of Scott Holstein/FAMU-FSU Engineering.

Ramakrishnan noted that the sensors were created with a newly acquired nScrypt machine, which enables printing on curved surfaces, a crucial capability for aerospace applications.

nScrypt’s machine used in this project is a game-changer for 3D printing. Known for its precision and versatility, the machine relies on a SmartPump microdispensing tool head to print directly onto curved and irregular surfaces. Introduced in 2021, this capability is perfect for fitting sensors onto the non-flat components of spacecraft.

Beyond aerospace, nScrypt’s technology holds the potential to transform various industries by encouraging the production of complex electronics directly on the objects’ surfaces. This can lead to innovations in wearable technology with embedded sensors, medical devices tailored to fit individual anatomical structures, and even components for drones and satellites. The machine’s rapid operation and compatibility with diverse materials make it a powerful tool for accelerating product development and reducing manufacturing costs.

Like most of nScrypt’s technology, it works fast and can handle many different materials, which means it could help make new products more quickly and cheaply than before. This is probably why Ramakrishnan pointed out that the team is also experimenting with “novel ink formations and process parameters that will result in new design rules and better methods for fast additive manufacturing of next-generation sensors at NASA.”

While laser annealing is not new, using it alongside 3D printed electronics for space projects is an innovative step in sensor design. This combination aims to produce more sensitive and durable sensors, making them better suited for the harsh conditions of space.

Precision microdispensing, material extrusion, micro-milling, and pick-and-place tool heads can run on the nScrypt Factory in a Tool. Image courtesy of nScrypt.

As part of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) Bridge Program, this project aims to foster diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility within the NASA workforce and the broader U.S. science and engineering community. It is part of NASA’s inaugural grants to support emerging research bodies. Totaling $3.7 million, these grants were distributed among 11 teams from traditionally underrepresented entities in NASA’s research enterprise, including Hispanic-serving institutions, Historically Black colleges and universities, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions, and primarily undergraduate schools.

Moreover, the research projects connect these entities to seven NASA centers and could impact more than 100 students. For FAMU and FSU, this grant involves collaborating with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Aerospace engineers and researchers from both locations are also collaborating on the project.

“As the agency continues to build relationships with under-resourced institutions through initiatives like the bridge program, we are intentionally increasing equitable access to NASA for the best and brightest talents in our nation,” said Shahra Lambert, NASA senior advisor for engagement. “These partnerships will help NASA develop a diverse and capable workforce to further our understanding of the cosmos.”

A strong emphasis on mentorship is also part of this program, increasing research capabilities and providing hands-on training for students. SMD Bridge Program Director Padi Boyd says the aim is to expand access to NASA opportunities to transition students into graduate school or STEM careers.

Students involved in the project will spend academic semesters at the college and work directly with NASA scientists. “They will have access throughout the year for mentorship opportunities and networking,” said Ramakrishnan.

The project also addresses national needs by solving key problems in space exploration and discovery. Its success could lead to advances in sensor technology, potentially resulting in new patents and startup opportunities. It could also be crucial in developing the newly formed Materials Science and Engineering Department at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering.

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