3D printing with Mars dust? It’s not as dumb as it sounds

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A team of researchers from Washington State University (WSU) have turned a simulated version of Martian rock into a “high performance material” that can be fed into a 3D printer.

In a blog post (opens in a new tab)the academics explained that the development could make it possible to manufacture essential tools and rocket parts on Mars itself, solving a variety of problems associated with the need to transport heavy payloads to the red planet.

“In space, 3D printing is something that has to happen if we want to think about a manned mission because we really can’t transport everything from here,” explained WSU professor Amit Bandyopadhyay. “And if we forgot something, we can’t come back for it.”

3D printing on Mars

Not only are space missions limited by cargo capacity, but transporting heavy materials into space is also exceptionally expensive. As explained in the blog post, it costs around $54,000 for a NASA shuttle to place a single kilo of material into Earth orbit, let alone transport it to Mars.

“Anything that can be made in space, or on the planet, would save weight and money – not to mention that if something breaks, astronauts would need a way to fix it on place,” WSU wrote.

To create a viable material, the researchers combined simulated Martian rock dust with a titanium alloy, selected for its strength and heat-resistant properties, and heated the materials to over 2,000 degrees Celsius at the using a high power laser.

Although a ceramic material made entirely from Mars dust cracked on cooling, the team found that a mixture of 5% rock and 95% alloy was both lighter and more stronger than titanium alloy alone.

Considering the sums involved, even a small reduction in shipping weight could translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars saved. Likewise, in the future, new techniques may be discovered that allow materials made of a greater proportion of Mars native rock to be used in 3D printing processes.

“[Our technique] gives you a better, stronger and harder material, so it can perform significantly better in some applications,” Bandyopadhyay said.

“It establishes that [creating composites suitable for 3D printing] is possible, and maybe we should think in that direction, because it’s not just about making plastic parts which are weak, but metal-ceramic composite parts which are strong and can be used for everything type of structural parts.

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