Three-dimensional printers are quickly becoming one of those most prominent “next in tech” topics identified as a possible game-changer for everything from toy-making to military technology. But a major limitation that continues to stymie founders of the so-called “Makers Revolution” is the materials available for use -- items are usually assembled from different types of plastic, which lacks the requisite strength to construct more durable and larger items than Warhammer figurines.
Not for long, according to a new study published in the Rapid Prototyping Journal titled “First demonstration on direct laser fabrication of lunar regolith parts.”
The report, written by researchers at Washington State University and NASA, suggests that rocks on the moon or Mars could be used as the base material for 3D printers through an additive manufacturing process referred to as “laser engineered net shaping.”
Drawing from the computer-aided design files used for all 3D printing, the new laser-assisted process could be used to create actual metal parts.
Amit Bandyopadhyay and Susmita Bose, a husband-and-wife research team at WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, used 10 pounds of simulated lunar material provided by NASA (ie: imitation moon rocks) in their experiment.
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The team reports it was able to create structures from the regolith that didn’t show any visible cracks or structural imperfections.
"It doesn't look fantastic, but you can make something out of it," Bandyopadhyay said in a release sent to CNET.
The current research focused on the potential for rapid prototyping to support research and development for space travel specifically. Testing on composite simulated materials could drastically reduce the cost pre-expedition, for instance. And the report also raises the possibility of remote repairs or manufacturing after a mission has launched. But the possibilities of manufacturing such materials are far-reaching.
Still, as with anything else in the 3D printing world, the technology is still in a primordial stage of its development. Bandyopadhyay called it “an exciting science fiction story” in the statement, saying that “maybe we’ll hear about it in the next few years.”
"As long as you can have additive manufacturing set up, you may be able to scoop up and print whatever you want. It's not that far-fetched," he added.
Improvements still need to be made to 3D printing and 3D scanning alike before these sorts of “science fiction” stories can be realized, however, leaving some researchers more skeptical.
"It would be nice if you could do that, but I'm not sure it would work -- it depends whether it is a simple mechanical component or something more complex," Professor Colin Pillinger, who worked on Britain’s unsuccessful Beagle-2 Mars Express mission, said in an interview with the BBC.
"If you break your car on a motorway and have to replace your wheel, and you just print one it's a mechanical component, but if it's something more sophisticated like an electrical component to run your car, it's a different story,” Pillinger added. "Of course, if you don't have to take a wheel to the Moon its great, but if it's not a mechanical part that breaks but something more sophisticated, then I'm not sure it would work."
There are certainly material limitations with any emerging technology. But for many researchers and tech journalists alike, the possibility or idea may be more important at this point than physical contingencies. Could the next Mars rover one day be made by your very own Makerbot? Either way, a lot of homebrew techies, and maybe even Newt Gingrich, will certainly be clamoring for the first place in line.