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Science
11 Jun 2017

Self-replicating 3D printer could help construct a lunar base

Scientists from a university in Canada are developing a new 3D printer which can make copies of itself using lunar material.

The idea is to send one such printer to the moon where, with the abundance of material, the printer would make thousands of copies of itself.

Once enough copies have been made, the printers would focus on equipment and infrastructure for humans.

In context

Self-replicating 3D printer for lunar exploration

Self-replicating machines could bypass multiple launch costs

"I believe that self-replicating machines will be transformative for space exploration because it effectively bypasses [multiple] launch costs," said Alex Ellery, an Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa, who is also the leader of the project.

Functioning

How would the printer work on the moon?

The printer would be fitted with a robotic arm with which it would scoop up lunar soil.

It would then heat the soil to 900 degrees Celsius using a "frensel" lens to focus sunlight into a beam in order to remove volatile gases from the soil.

Then, a compound called ilmenite would be separated and used to extract iron for replication.

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Self-replication

Scientists getting close to printing motors and electronics

To successfully self-replicate, the 3D printer would need to be able to print metal bars, electric motors, electronics, and replicate its software, and then reassemble itself.

While no printer can yet print motors, the team is reportedly close to achieving the feat.

They are using a mixture of plastic parts and iron fillings to 3D-print parts of the motor, the stator, and the rotors.

Substituting materials on the moon

Materials

Substituting materials on the moon

To finish printing the motor, the scientists are looking to replace the motor's wire coils with aluminium coils printed onto a polyactic acid plastic substrate, a material used commonly for 3D printing.

On the moon, the aluminium would be replaced by an iron-cobalt-nickel alloy, and the plastic by a ceramic substrate made from melted lunar soil.

Challenges

Printing electronics is the biggest challenge

While Alex Ellery, the project lead, believes that his team would have a fully functioning 3D printed motor in a few months, the bigger challenge is printing electronics.

They are currently exploring the possibility of using vacuum tubes to print electronics as it would only need nickel, glass and tungsten, all of which can be found on the moon.

Once completed, the printer could work wonders

"Once motors and electronic controllers can be 3D-printed, we can print any kind of robot, including a 3D printer, as well as milling machines, drills, lathes, excavating machines and so on," said Ellery, explaining how the printer could create a manufacturing infrastructure on the moon.

Potential uses for the 3D printer

Potential uses

Potential uses for the 3D printer

If the creation of a lunar base for humans by self-replicating 3D printers seems far fetched, the printer has other potential uses.

It could be used to cheaply generate space-based solar power wherein satellites with solar panels would beam energy down to earth.

It could also be used to create a space shield to protect the Earth against solar radiation.

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