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3D Printing Shoots for the Moon

Friday, February 15, 2013

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The possibilities of using 3D printing for construction has researchers over the moon—or literally on it, if all goes according to plan.

The European Space Agency set up a consortium to explore the potential for 3D printing to construct lunar habitations. The study, which partners with Foster + Partners, is investigating the use of lunar soil, called regolith, as building matter.

A multi-dome lunar base is being constructed based on the 3D printing concept. Once assembled, the inflated domes will be covered with a layer of 3D-printed lunar regolith to protect occupants against space radiation and micrometeoroids.

European Space Agency

The European Space Agency and a team of researchers are exploring 3D printing to construct buildings on the moon "as a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement," according to one official.

"3D printing offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth," said Scott Hovland of ESA's human spaceflight team.

"The new possibilities this work opens up can then be considered by international space agencies as part of the current development of a common exploration strategy," he said.

'Printing' a Lunar Base

D-Shape is a brand created by Monolite UK Ltd. It is a new robotic building system that uses new materials to create stone-like structures. Using a stereolithography 3D printing process, making full-size sandstone buildings requires only sand and a special inorganic binder, without any human intervention.

The D-Shape printer has a mobile printing array of nozzles to spray a binding solution onto a sand-like building material. The 3D "printouts" are built up layer by layer.

"By simply pressing the 'enter' key on the keypad, we intend to give the architect the possibility to make buildings directly, without intermediaries who can add interpretation and realization mistakes," according to Monolite's website.

Monolite UK Ltd.

D-Shape is a new robotic building system that uses a 3D printing process to create stone-like structures.

While regolith is produced by specialty companies for scientific testing, it is typically sold by the kilogram—a problem, since this project would requires tonnes.

Instead, researchers discovered that basaltic rock from a volcano in Italy was nearly a perfect match for lunar soil.

The simulated lunar material was first mixed with magnesium oxide to turn it into "paper" for printing. Then for structural "ink," a binding salt was applied to convert the material to a stone-like solid.

The lunar base is designed to house four people. The base is first unfolded from a tubular module transported by a space rocket, then the inflatable dome extends from one end of the module to provide a support structure for construction. Next, a robot-operated 3D printer builds layers of regolith over the dome to create a protective shell. To ensure strength, the shell is made up of a hollow, closed cellular structure similar to foam.

"Terrestrial 3D printing technology has produced entire structures," said Laurent Pambaguian, who is heading the project for ESA. "Our industrial team investigated if it could similarly be employed to build a lunar habitat."

Monolite UK Ltd.

D-Shape technology could eventually allow architects to build an entire structure with the press of a button.

'Groundbreaking' Potential

The geometry of the structure is "groundbreaking in demonstrating the potential of 3D printing to create structures that are close to natural biological systems," according to Foster + Partners, which designed the shell structure.

"Our current printer builds at a rate of around 2 m per hour, while our next-generation design should attain 3.5 m per hour, completing an entire building in a week," said Enrico Dini, founder of Monolite.

Alta SpA, an Italian space research firm, and Pisa-based engineering university Scuola Superiore Sant' Anna collaborated to adapt the 3D printing technique for a moon mission. Since the moon's atmosphere is a vacuum, and the printing process is based on applying liquids, the researchers inserted the printer nozzle under the regolith layer, discovering that the small droplets stayed trapped in the soil.

The robotic building machine uses CAD-CAE-CAM Design Technology. According to Monolite, D-Shape competes with the traditional construction industry that uses cement, reinforced concrete, bricks and stones, and it has been designed to make the industry more environmentally friendly.


Tagged categories: Building materials; Confined space; Construction; Green building; NASA; Research

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