An enormous challenge regarding the planned colonisation of Mars is the fact that it lacks many of the valuable resources available on Earth. Limited cargo space means that few of these can be taken along for the trip. Astronauts will therefore need to find a way to make use of the scant resources available on the red planet – and a breakthrough from researchers at Northwestern University may make this endeavour simpler.
Utilising synthetic lunar and Martian dust simulants combined with solvents and a biopolymer the team has developed a way to manufacture and 3D print repair parts or tools. A NASA approved process that the university has described as simple, scalable, and sustainable, the research team utilise a unique 3D technique called 3D painting which uses ink-like materials in the manufacturing process.
Using a plastic extruder these synthetic dust based inks are printed into varying shapes. Unlike lunar or Martian rock, the resulting printed material is flexible, elastic and tough. The material is also durable enough that it can be bent, rolled and cut according to specific needs.
“For places like other planets and moons, where resources are limited, people would need to use what is available on that planet in order to live,” Ramille Shah, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering explained to Livescience. “Our 3D paints really open up the ability to print different functional or structural objects to make habitats beyond Earth.”
While the rubbery material they’ve developed will certainly have its uses on Mars, the research team at Northwestern is now working on firing objects printed with this material in a furnace, to transform them into harder, ceramic-like pieces.