Recycled plastic conquers space
Printing in 3D with the waste of objects already used, so as to minimize consumption and to be able to build in real time and what you need, is the new project of NASA begun in 2018.
If waste is already a problem on earth, what should astronauts living in the International Space Station (ISS) that flies about 400km above our heads say? They, actually, accumulate up to 2 tonnes of rubbish on board, for a total of 12 tonnes per year, which they cyclically send back to Earth with the automatic supply cargoes.
To try to solve this problem NASA has thought of something that could allow the recycling of some waste, especially plastic waste, even in space. This is why Refabricator, a new device similar to a 3D printer, has been made available to astronauts: it is able to recycle and reuse plastic bags, containers, food dishes and other polymeric objects several times to create new ones of any shape.
This wasn't the first time that a 3D printer was attempted in space; the first attempt was made in 1999 when the agency put a 3D printer on the so-called Vomit Comet which made a parabolic flight test in which it produced 25 seconds of zero gravity to see how the printing process worked under those conditions.
Since that date, 3D printing has taken giant steps such as the printer produced for ESA through the MELT (Manufacturing of Experimental Layer Technology) project by a consortium led by Sonaca Space GmbH together with BeeVeryCreative. This printer is able to operate from any orientation, upside down or resting on its side, and then operate perfectly even in microgravity conditions on board the International Space Station, or in other aerospace contexts. The MELT printer can print a wide variety of thermoplastics from ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene) to high melting point engineering thermoplastics such as PEEK (polyether ether ketone). This printer could be used to produce on-demand parts for repairing and maintaining a long-lasting orbital habitat.
The Refabricator, has the size of a mini fridge and, instead of powdering the plastic making the process dangerous for the ISS it melts each component by printing a new one with the same material. It is currently the first machine that combines recycling and 3D printing and works with the polyetherimide (Ultem), a very resistant type of plastic. This machine will save a lot of money in the long term given the cost of shipping materials in the space of over 18,000€ per shipment.
The ultimate goal of NASA is not only to have a machine able to recycle waste in the space station but also to be able to cover longer distances such as returning to the Moon and shipping to Mars without the need for long waiting times for supplies from earth.