September 14, 2022
Researchers have found a way to make tools and rocket parts on Mars using additive manufacturing.
Mixing a small amount of simulated crushed Martian rock with a titanium alloy results in a stronger material in a 3D printing process that could one day be used on Mars.
The researchers made the pieces with as little as 5% to 100% Martian regolith, a black powdery substance meant to mimic the rocky, inorganic material found on the Red Planet’s surface.
While parts containing 5% Martian regolith were strong, parts with 100% regolith were found to be brittle and cracked easily. Still, even materials with high Martian content would be useful for making coatings to protect equipment from rust or radiation damage, says Amit Bandyopadhyay, corresponding author of the study in the International Journal of Applied Ceramics. Technology.
“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,” says Bandyopadhyay, a professor in the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and of materials from Washington State University. “And if we forgot something, we can’t come back for it.”
Transporting materials into space can be extremely expensive. For example, it costs NASA’s space shuttle about $54,000 to put a single kilogram of payload (about 2.2 pounds) into Earth orbit, the researchers note. 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 the spot. .
Bandyopadhyay first demonstrated the feasibility of this idea in 2011 when his team used 3D printing to fabricate parts from lunar regolith, a simulation of crushed moon rock, for NASA. Since then, space agencies have embraced the technology, and the International Space Station has its own 3D printers to manufacture materials needed on-site and for experiments.
For this study, Bandyopadhyay, along with graduate students Ali Afrouzian and Kellen Traxel, used a powder-based 3D printer to mix simulated Martian rock dust with titanium alloy, a metal often used in space exploration to its strength and heat resistance properties. .
As part of the process, a high-powered laser heated the materials to over 2,000°C. Then, the molten mixture of Martian-ceramic regolith and metallic material flowed onto a moving platform that allowed the researchers to create different sizes and shapes. After the material cooled, the researchers tested it for strength and durability.
The ceramic material made of 100% Martian rock dust cracked as it cooled, but as Bandyopadhyay points out, it could still make good coatings for radiation shields, because cracks don’t matter in this context.
But just a bit of Martian dust, the mix with five percent regolith, not only didn’t crack or bubble, but also had better properties than the titanium alloy alone, which meant it could be used to make lighter parts that could still support heavy loads.
“It gives you a better material that’s stronger and harder, so it can perform significantly better in certain applications,” he says.
This study is just the beginning, says Bandyopadhyay. Future research could produce better composites using different metals or 3D printing techniques.
“It proves that it’s possible, and maybe we should think in that direction because it’s not just about making plastic parts that are weak, but metal-ceramic composite parts that are strong and can be used for all types of structural parts,” he says.
The National Science Foundation supported the research.