Last updateTue, 27 Jul 2021 1pm

ESA Extended: Reducing Plastic Consumption in Space With Lunar Powder

Since becoming a part of the European Astronaut Centre’s lab equipment in February 2017, the Composer 450 has been instrumental in their prototyping processes. ESA researchers have successfully used the extruder to develop custom quantities of PLA-based filament for research and development iterations. The 3devo set-up gives Spaceship EAC the ability to create 3D printing filament in-house. Also, reducing Spaceship EAC’s dependence on the expertise and availability of third--party filament suppliers.

What’s happening now? Going green (into space)
With ESA’s well-equipped 3devo set-up, they have taken full advantage of the machine’s capabilities – leading them to their latest discovery. For long missions in space, astronauts need self-reliant tools to be able to manufacture parts and structures. An additive manufacturing process such as FDM is ideal for this application, thanks to its flexibility and efficient material usage. Seems ideal, right? Unfortunately, there is a catch. FDM requires large amounts of plastic to create 3D parts – costing the agency time and money since materials must be sent from Earth.
With the initiative of ESA’s Spaceship EAC, materials engineer trainee, Benoît Andre, was assigned to find a new material that would reduce costs and minimize plastic sent into space. The answer he unveiled was the usage of the moon’s resources. Benoît commenced a world premiere by creating a composite material from a PLA/Lunar powder mixture for FDM printing.
“In practice, I used the 3devo filament maker to produce a printable filament, using only PLA pellets and regolith simulant (EAC-1) as feedstock material. EAC-1 is a sand-like mineral powder developed by spaceship EAC to mimic the properties of lunar regolith. The filament maker was used to mix the feedstock materials, melt the PLA pellets, and finally extrude the composite filament, all in a single continuous step. By optimizing the parameters, I was able to produce homogenous filaments with various regolith concentrations. Several parts have been successfully 3D-printed using this filament and a slightly modified commercial FDM printer (Prusa Mk3s)”, explains Benoît Andre, Materials Engineer Trainee, EAC – European Space Agency
From theory to reality
Benoît’s objective was to find a solution for reducing plastic consumption on the moon. This objective led him to create a composite material made up of PLA and lunar powder, the regolith, to produce 3D printing filament. This new material will decrease the volume of plastic inside a 3D printed object while maintaining the mechanical properties necessary for resistant parts. Now, ESA will not have to compromise between an easy manufacturing process with a high printability and good mechanical properties with this new material.
“The real-time data provided by the filament maker (e.g., temperatures, speeds, diameter) were used throughout this study to understand and improve the manufacturing process. The filament, as well as printed sample parts, were analyzed through a battery of laboratory tests”, says Benoît Andre, Materials Engineer Trainee, EAC – European Space Agency
This study enabled Benoît to show the feasibility of FDM printing using a PLA/regolith composite and better understand the principles, advantages, and drawbacks through this process. By pushing the process and the filament maker to its limits, the end-goal will produce highly concentrated filaments within space and successfully 3D-print various parts.



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