Martian rock-metal composite could enable 3D printing on Mars

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A small amount of simulated crushed Martian rock, mixed with a titanium alloy, was used to make a strong, high-performance material that could one day be used to 3D print tools or rocket parts on Mars. The pieces were made by researchers at Washington State University (WSU) with as little as 5%, up to 100%, Martian regolith – a black powdery substance meant to mimic the rocky, inorganic material found on Earth’s surface. the red planet.

According to Amit Bandyopadhyay, the corresponding author of the study published in the International Journal of Applied Ceramic Technology, parts 3D printed with 5% Martian regolith were strong, while 100% regolith parts were found to be brittle and are easily cracked. Although materials with high Martian content would still be useful in making coatings to protect equipment from rust or radiation damage.

“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,” said Amit Bandyopadhyay, a professor at the School of Mechanical. and Materials Engineering from WSU. “And if we forgot something, we can’t come back for it.”

The surface of Mars. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Transporting materials into space can be extremely expensive. For example, the authors noted that it costs NASA’s space shuttle about $54,000 to put a single kilogram of payload (about 2.2 pounds) into Earth orbit. 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. . This is exactly why, if humanity is to become a multiplanetary species, and if Mars is to be our second home, we will need to 3D print on Mars.

Amit Bandyopadhyay first demonstrated the feasibility of this idea in 2011 when his team used 3D printing to make parts from lunar regolith, simulating 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, Amit 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. for its strength and heat resistance. Properties. As part of the process, a high-powered laser heated the materials to over 2,000 degrees Celsius (3,632 F). 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 Amit Bandyopadhyay pointed out, it could still make good coatings for radiation shields because the cracks have no resistance. importance in this context. But just a bit of Martian dust, the mix with 5% regolith, not only didn’t crack or bubble, but also had better properties than titanium alloy alone, which meant it could be used to make lighter parts that could still support heavy loads. .

“It gives you a better, stronger and harder material, so it can perform significantly better in certain applications,” said Amit Bandyopadhyay, noting that this study is just the beginning, and future research could produce better composites using different metals or 3D printing. techniques.

“It establishes 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 any kind of structural parts,” he said.

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

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