3D printing with moon dust: PhD study successfully manufactures parts from lunar soil
The success of future lunar missions could rely on astronauts being able to 3D print essential components and tools from nothing but the sea of moon dust around them.
Technology developed at Loughborough University has shown that creating intricate items from a material almost identitcal to lunar soil is a very real possibility, and has sparked conversations with NASA and the European Sopace Agency (ESA) - although no formal declartions of interested have been made as of yet.
Doctoral student Thanos Goulas has successfully manipulated pure ‘moon dust’ – using no additives – to manufacture screws, complex lattice shapes, a Loughborough University logo and various objects in an attempt to further the possibilities of space exploration.
His 3D printing process could save space agencies huge amounts of money, he said, and will give astronauts instant access to replacement parts and tools rather than having to wait for them to be launched from Earth.
His research has also focussed on developing the method to include printing with Martian soil which shares a lot of the characteristics of lunar regolith (dust).
Possible future uses, which require advances in the technique, include creating components with specific dimensions, building shielding to protect from meteoroids and radiation and constructing landing and launch pads.
Thanos is coming to the end of the three year PhD study but is planning to carry on developing the method to create more advanced and functional components.
He said: “The technology, since its early days, has always been envisioned that it could serve as a means to advance the human presence in space by being able to manufacture extra-terrestrial habitats.
“However, since 3D printing is still young of age, there has been very little work conducted towards realising such an ambitious application.
“At present, I have managed to develop the 3D printing process with lunar soil to a level that we can build parts regardless of any geometrical complexity - from basic shapes to fine lattices, and without the use of any additives or binders.
“It is pure moon dust.
"We hope to further advance the process to a point that will be able to deliver objects with exceptional mechanical and physical properties as required by demanding mission scenarios.”
In lieu of the rare extra-terrestrial regoliths, two substitute materials were used in the study: JSC-1A (lunar) and JSC-MARS-1A (Martian) – which were both originally developed for NASA.
The alternative materials come from volcanic ores found in Arizona and Hawaii, which have similar chemical and mineral composition to the lunar and Martian samples.
Thanos’s work has been documented in a number of academic papers, the latest of which investigates the mechanical behaviour of printed parts created from ‘moon dust’.
Previous studies have also explored the 3D printing process itself and the practicality of using extra-terrestrial materials for manufacturing items in space.
Collaborations during, and guidance on the project were invaluable, said Thanos, and included input from Dr Ross Friel – Thanos’s initial PhD supervisor and co-author in all of his work – and Professors Jon Binner from the University of Birmingham and Russell Harris from the University of Leeds.
Thanos’s current PhD supervisor Dr Daniel Engstrom, a Lecturer in 3D Printing from the school of Mechanical, Electrical and Manufacturing Engineering said: “To begin with we weren’t sure if this would be possible at all.
“But, the fact that Thanos has shown that it is possible to use laser processing to manufacture solid components from lunar soil without any additives is quite impressive.”
The full paper can be accessed here.