Athlone Institute of Technology has been contracted by the European Space Agency (ESA ) to develop the world’s first large-scale, zero-gravity 3D printing machine for use on the International Space Station as part of a wider European consortium which includes German aerospace company Sonaca Group, BEEVERYCREATIVE, a Portuguese 3D printer provider, and OHB, a leading German Space and Technology Group.
Named Project Imperial, the consortium will draw on the expert knowledge of Dr Sean Lyons, Dean of Faculty of Engineering and Informatics, Dr Declan Devine, Director of the Materials Research Institute and Dr Ian Major, Principal Investigator at the Materials Research Institute, in the areas of additive manufacturing, advanced polymer materials and creating composites for challenging environments. The researchers will use high-strength, functional thermoplastics to develop and deploy a 3D printer capable of creating complex engineering structures larger than itself.
“Traditionally, 3D printers are based around simple materials and applications. They might look the part but they’re not hard or strong enough to be fully functional. Using cutting-edge material science, we’re going to design components that can be modified or configured for printing in zero gravity conditions on board the International Space Station.
“There are several applications for this technology, imagine a door handle breaks on the ISS, it’s not feasible to send a payload from France all the way to the International Space Station with a spare handle. Through Project Imperial, the astronauts on board the ISS will be able to print parts as and when they are required. They’ll also be able to print bespoke parts: say if an astronaut broke their arm and needed a cast plaster, they’ll have the capability to print it in space themselves in-situ,” Dr Sean Lyons explained.
Project Imperial will have an uplink connection with the astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS ) to help the team better understand the astronaut’s electronic and space constraints.
“It’s not as simple as if the project was terrestrially-based. We obviously can’t go up to discuss our designs with the astronauts or train them how to use this technology in person. We’ll also have to ensure that the panels are multilingual because you have quite a diverse group on board the ISS,” Dr Lyons continued.
Additionally, the AIT team will be looking at other applications for this technology such as areas where printing in zero gravity gives benefit to the material properties that might be useful on earth.
“Some cell scaffolds could be printed in a zero-gravity environment and then brought back to earth and implanted into a human. They would perform better than they would if they were printed under gravity constraints on earth. There are loads of potential applications for this.
“We’re delighted to be collaborating on such seminal research with the European Space Agency and our European partners Sonaca Group, BEEVERYCREATIVE and OHB. It’s an amazing opportunity to demonstrate exactly what we’re capable of and the breadth of skills and expertise on offer at our award-winning institute,” Dr Sean Lyons enthused.
Project Imperial is scheduled to run for two years with the payload deployment expected by 2021. The 3D printed parts produced by this new technology will demonstrate the potential for extra-terrestrial manufacturing, enabling new maintenance and life support strategies for human space flight.