Research Shows Potential for 3D Printing on Mars

Research Shows Potential for 3D Printing on Mars: Researchers from Washington State University have shown how to manufacture a high-performance material on Mars to produce rocket parts or tools in situ. The approach, based on 3D printing of a rock–metal composite, could help progress the in-space and on-planet manufacturing of structurally sound parts to aid interplanetary space exploration in the future.

As reported in the International Journal of Applied Ceramic Technology [Afrouzian et al. Int. J. Appl. Ceram. (2022) DOI: Mars], the team produced a black powdery substance to represent regolith, the loose deposits of dust, broken rocks and inorganic material found on many planets and moons, as a way to investigate how planetary manned missions could 3D print parts to save both weight and transportation costs, as well as being able to repair things if they break.

The researchers, led by corresponding author Amit Bandyopadhyay, had already demonstrated the feasibility of using 3D printing to make parts from lunar regolith for NASA, and the technology has since taken off, with the International Space Station having its own 3D printers to produce materials on site and for experiments.

Here, Bandyopadhyay and colleagues Ali Afrouzian and Kellen Traxel used a powder-based 3D printer to combine the simulated rock dust with a titanium alloy, a metal used in space exploration due to its strength and heat-resistant properties. A high-powered laser then heated the materials to over 2,000 degrees Celsius, before the melted mix of regolith-ceramic and metal material flowed onto a moving platform to produce different sizes and shapes. As Amit Bandyopadhyay told Materials Today, “It was the first such work where 3D printing was shown to create shapes via a melt-cast route from regolith powders”.

The ceramic material made from 100% Martian rock dust was shown to be brittle and cracked easily, although still robust enough for coating radiation shields. However, only a small amount of Martian dust – a mixture with 5% regolith – did not crack or bubble, and demonstrated better properties than just the titanium alloy, and could be used for lighter pieces that can still bear heavy loads.

Although direct 3D printing of regolith–metal composites has not yet been achieved, this study opens lines of research for identifying how to use more regolith to make strong and durable parts, and even better composites using different metals, or metals in other forms such as wires, and what kind of properties can be achieved from these parts.


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