3D printing, and additive manufacturing processes more generally, have made many advances in recent years. Just a few years ago, most 3D printing was only used for building prototypes, which would then go on to be manufactured via conventional processes. But it’s now increasingly being used for manufacturing in its own right.
Nearly two years ago, NASA even sent a 3D printer to the International Space Station with the goal of testing how the technology works in micro-gravity. While the printer resembles a Star Trek replicator, it’s not quite that sophisticated yet; the objects it can print are small prototypes for testing.
What I really want to do is to use the machine to complete the Sagrada Familia. And to build on the moon.
NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and entrepreneurs aiming to jump-start human colonization of space see the 3D printing of large scale objects, including entire habitations, as a major enabling technology for the future of space exploration.
In 2013, a project led by the ESA used simulated lunar regolith – i.e. loose top soil – to produce a 1.5-ton hollow cell building block. It was conceived as part of a dome shelter for a lunar base that would also incorporate an inflatable interior structure. The project used a D-Shape printer using Enrico Dini’s company, Monolite.
Since 2011, NASA has been funding similar research led by Professor Behrokh Khoshnevies at the University of Southern California. His team has been using a technology called contour crafting, which also has the goal of using 3D printing to construct entire space habitations from in situ resources.
After testing 3D printing in space, NASA has decided the technology is close to a tipping point. As part of a new program of public/private partnerships aimed at pushing emerging space capabilities over these tipping points, NASA has awarded a major contract to the Archinaut project.
The project will see a 3D printer, built by Made in Space, mated with a robotic arm, built by Oceaneering Space Systems, with Northrup Grumman providing the control software and integration with the ISS systems.
The goal of the project is to provide an on-orbit demonstration of large, complex structure – in this case a boom for a satellite – sometime in 2018.
But 3D manufacturing is already changing the aerospace industry. Composites, for example, have become a commonly used material for a wide variety of applications.
But composites tend to suffer weakness between their laminating layers, which can lead to material failures in crucial components. 3D weaving, which deploys fibers on three axes, is set to revolutionize these materials and their performances.
But the ability to use in situ materials, both for fuel, water and construction whether on the moon, Mars, or asteroids has long been recognized as a crucial ability to enable human exploration of the solar system.
Contests such as last the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge, part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges, are an important element of an innovation strategy designed to push the envelope of technology, leveraging entrepreneurial spirit, scientific and technological know-how and design thinking in a bid to take human space exploration to the next level.
The winning design, announced at the New York Makers Faire in September, was the Mars Ice House.
The Mars Ice House Habitat, which would be printed out of ice from relatively abundant water on Mars’ northern hemisphere, is a far cry from the bunker-like spaces frequently envisioned for Mars bases. The ice would provide ample radiation protection while creating a radiant, light filled space reminiscent of a cathedral.
Space exploration has always been associated with visionary fiction and grandiose plans, and it looks like 3D manufacturing and construction may finally bring the printed word to life.
Nine years ago, Joshua Robinson was approached by his then-advisor with news of a discovery that would end up transforming his career, and much of materials science. “I saw this crazy talk about 2-D graphite,” he recalls his adviser saying.
The adviser was referring of course to graphene, the first material to exist as truly two-dimensional: only a single atom thick. Back in 2006, the physics community was just beginning to wrap its mind around how a 2-D material could even exist.
Fast forward to 2015. The realization that materials can be thinned down to the absolute limit of a single atom is spreading, both throughout the world and across the periodic table. Researchers are learning that 2-D isn’t just for the carbon atoms of graphene. Different elemental combinations can lead to fascinating new science and applications.
Robinson is now associate director for Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Two-Dimensional and Layered Materials, a center with 20 faculty and over 50 students dedicated to uncovering the fundamental properties of this new zoo of 2-D materials. It is one of many such centers around the world. And as scientists continue to create new 2-D materials there’s a palpable frenzy to characterize their surprising electronic, optical, and mechanical properties.
The excitement stems from the fact that materials shaved down to only a few atoms act very differently from their so-called “bulk” or 3-D version. Quantum effects begin to take hold as the electrons in the material are squeezed into that impossibly thin layer.
And, being flexible, 2-D materials could bring those unique electrical properties to all sorts of new applications – from bendable touch screens to wearable sensors.
Vancouver-based architect Michael Green was unequivocal at a conference at which I heard him speak a while ago: “We grow trees in British Columbia that are 35 stories tall, so why do our building codes restrict timber buildings to only five stories?”
True, regulations in that part of Canada have changed relatively recently to permit an additional story, but the point still stands. This can hardly be said to keep pace with the new manufacturing technologies and developments in engineered wood products that are causing architects and engineers to think very differently about the opportunities wood offers in the structure and construction of tall buildings.
Green himself produced a book in 2012 called Tall Wood, which explored in detail the design of 20-story commercial buildings using engineered timber products throughout. Since then he has completed the Wood Innovation and Design Center at the University of North British Columbia which, at 29.25 meters (effectively eight stories), is currently lauded as the tallest modern timber building in North America.
The Sochi Olympics are churning out dramatic victories – but athletes aren’t the only ones who fine-tuned their craft to get here. As U.S. bobsledders, skaters and lugers compete during these Games, they’re doing so with cutting-edge technology that’s gone through an equally exhaustive testing process.
These technological upgrades, which look to bolster their respective sports with faster times and improved features, will help athletes stand their best chance yet at scoring the gold this year. Here we take a look at three notable improvements.
With speed skating, the difference between scoring a gold medal and walking home empty-handed is determined by a fraction of a second. To help put U.S. Olympic speed skaters on the winning side of that difference, sporting goods manufacturer
Under Armour and defense contractor Lockheed Martin created the Mach 39 speed skating suit to shave off those precious nanoseconds.
Whereas most suits try to be as slick and aerodynamic as possible, Under Armour went the opposite direction by installing “flow-molding” on the backside of the Mach 39 suits. These strategically placed dimples work like the bumps on a golf ball, cutting back drag that accumulates behind high-velocity objects. “We’re trying to disrupt that air flow before it bulks up behind a skater,” Chief of Innovation Kevin Haley said.
Along with reduced air drag, the suits also cut down on friction generated between the athlete’s thighs as they cross over one another for tight track turns. Dubbed “Armour Glide,” these textiles are strategically located on the athlete’s inner thighs, where t
he most friction—and energy waste—occurs. With the textiles, athletes see a 65% drop in the coefficient of friction between the legs, letting them redirect their strength onto the ice and “put more power into the skates,” Haley said.
Debbie Chachra is an Associate Professor of Materials Science at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, with research interests in biological materials, education, and design. You can follow her on Twitter: @debcha.
In 1956, M. King Hubbert laid out a prediction for how oil production in a nation increases, peaks, and then quickly falls down. Since then many analysts have extended this logic and said that global oil production will soon max out—a point called “peak oil“—which could throw the world economy into turmoil.
I’m a materials scientist by training, and one aspect of peak oil I’ve been thinking about recently is peak plastic.
The use of oil for fuel is dominant, and there’s a reason for that. Oil is remarkable—not only does it have an insanely high energy density (energy stored per unit mass), but it also allows for a high energy flux. In about 90 seconds, I can fill the tank of my car—and that’s enough energy to move it at highway speeds for five hours—but my phone, which uses a tiny fraction of the energy, needs to be charged overnight. So we’ll need to replace what oil can do alone in two different ways: new sources of renewable energy, and also better batteries to store it in. And there’s no Moore’s law for batteries. Getting something that’s even close to the energy density and flux of oil will require new materials chemistry, and researchers are working hard to create better batteries. Still, this combination of energy density and flux is valuable enough that we’ll likely still extract every drop of oil that we can, to use as fuel.
But if we’re running out of oil, that also means that we’re running out of plastic. Compared to fuel and agriculture, plastic is small potatoes. Even though plastics are made on a massive industrial scale, they still only account for about 2% world’s oil consumption. So recycling plastic saves plastic and reduces its impact on the environment, but it certainly isn’t going to save us from the end of oil. Peak oil means peak plastic. And that means that much of the physical world around us will have to change.