Imagine landing on the moon, scooping up some soil and using it to print a replacement part for your rocket. That's what NASA and researchers from Washington State are working on and one day very soon it's going to be a reality. "It sounds like science fiction, but now it's really possible,'' says Amit Bandyopadhyay, professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Washington State University.
Researchers from NASA approached Bandyopadhyay and his team at WSU because they were already planning to send a 3D printer into space and they wanted to know whether or not they could use lunar soil as a build material. At the time, Bandyopadhyay and his colleague Susmita Bose were working with 3D printers to create orthopedic implants and tentatively, they told NASA, "Yes, it might be possible." To test out the theory NASA sent over ten pounds of raw lunar regolith simulant, a.k.a. imitation moon rock. At first, Bandyopadhyay and Bose were concerned about how well the material would print, but when they started working with it they found it behaves similarly to silica. They were able to create a few simple shapes out of the raw soil, though they were a little disappointed with the end result. "It doesn't look fantastic, but you can make something out of it,'' says Bandyopadhyay.
Taking the research one step further, Bandyopadhyay and Bose began slightly altering the material before they printed with it. It's possible, they said, to get a successful build if you add in some earth-based materials before printing. "The advantage of additive manufacturing is that you can control the composition as well as the geometry,'' says Bose.
Now that Bandyopadhyay and Bose have figured out how to print with lunar soil it opens up a lot of possibilities for NASA. The project was initially designed to find a way for astronauts to print things like spare parts in space without having to cart all the materials with them during the initial launch. The success of the WSU project has led NASA to believe they may be able to print far more than small odds and ends. NASA (along with the European Space Agency) is now planning to use 3D printing and lunar soil to build entire habitats on the moon.