Space 3D Printer with Built-in Recycling Prepped for ISS
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on June 27, 2016 |

Last month, the first commercial 3D printer was installed aboard the International Space Station (ISS), heralding a new era for space manufacturing. The off-world 3D printing market, however, is starting to become competitive, and Made In Space may not continue to be the only company to have sent a 3D printer into space. 

Teams from Europe, China and Russia are all working on their own 3D printers to install on the ISS. Made In Space is also facing competition on the home front, as NASA has provided Firmamentum $750,000 in funding to send its device, a combination 3D printer and plastic recycler, to the ISS.

The Refabricator is a 3D printer capable of producing its own feedstock from recycled plastic. (Image courtesy of Tethers Unlimited.)
The Refabricator is a 3D printer capable of producing its own feedstock from recycled plastic. (Image courtesy of Tethers Unlimited.)

The Refabricator is one part 3D printer and one part material recycling system meant to demonstrate a form of “closed-cycle” in-space manufacturing. Using Firmamentum’s patent-pending Positrusion filament recycling system, the device will recycle 3D-printed objects as a means of limiting the amount of printing material that would be needed to launch into space.

Jesse Cushing, principal investigator on the Refabricator team, elaborated, “On a manned mission to Mars, the astronauts must bring everything they need with them. Due to the incredibly high cost of launching mass to Mars, carrying every tool or replacement part that they might possibly need simply isn’t affordable. The Refabricator will demonstrate the ability to recycle plastic parts and waste to make new parts and tools on demand. This capability will enable the astronauts to use material that would otherwise be waste to maintain their spacecraft and adapt to unforeseen challenges on the Martian surface. For example, if Mark Watney had a Refabricator, he could have easily recycled his food trays and other plastic waste into the tools and parts he needed to survive, and The Martian would have been much less of a nail-biter.”

Firmamentum is a division of Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (TUI), an aerospace company that has already received numerous NASA and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awards for a wide variety of projects, including the creation of powerful tethers for the sea and space, new types of satellites and the SpiderFab, a system meant to be capable of 3D printing and assembling large-scale objects in the vacuum of space. In other words, a two-in-one 3D printer and material recycler may be one of the less remarkable endeavors attempted by TUI.

Rob Hoyt, CEO of TUI/Firmamentum, addressed the overall vision of the Refabricator project, “The Refabricator demonstration is a key advance towards our vision of implementing a truly sustainable in-space manufacturing ecosystem. With this technology, the astronauts will be able to process our recyclable launch packaging materials into 3D printer filament, manufacture and recycle food-safe utensils, and turn what is now inconvenient waste into feedstock to help build the next generation of space systems. We believe these solutions will help dramatically reduce the cost and risks for NASA and private space exploration missions.”

The system is already in development and has undergone tests here on Earth. The next step will be to test the system in a microgravity environment before preparing the Refabricator for eventual launch to the ISS in 2017, where it will begin operation. 

TUI is competing with Made In Space on multiple fronts, not just in the creation of a 3D printer for use aboard the ISS. Made In Space is also working on its own filament recycling system, as well as the Archinaut, a system for constructing large-scale structures in space. Will the Archinaut ever battle the SpiderFab out in the depths of space? We can only pray.

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