The European Space Agency released details about a series of 3D printed ceramic objects it made using a simulated lunar regolith. The parts, consisting of small gears, screws and other components, demonstrate how 3D printing could one day be used on the moon’s surface, using local materials to print details parts to support a lunar base camp.
Impressively, the recently unveiled 3D printed parts reportedly possess the finest print resolution of any parts made with a simulated lunar regolith—which is essentially a dust-like material made to resemble the moon’s soil.
Advenit Makaya, an ESA materials engineer, commented on the achievement, saying: “These parts have the finest print resolution ever achieved with objects made of regolith simulant, demonstrating a high level of print precision and widening the range of uses such items could be put to. If one needs to print tools or machinery parts to replace broken parts on a lunar base, precision in the dimensions and shape of the printed items will be vital.”
The small parts were 3D printed by ESA in collaboration with Lithoz, an Austrian company specializing in 3D printed ceramics. Though the company typically works with ceramic materials such as aluminum oxide, zirconium oxide and silicon nitride, it has adapted its process to work with the raw regolith simulant for ESA.
The simulant regolith is made up of different types of oxides, including silicon oxide (the predominant material) as well as aluminum, calcium and iron oxides. These are ground and sieved until they have reached particle size. In the print process, they are mixed with a light-reacting binding agent and deposited layer by layer and then solidified by exposure to light. When the printing is complete, the part is then place in a furnace and sintered, resulting in a solid, dense object.
“Thanks to our expertise in the additive manufacturing of ceramics, we were able to achieve these results very quickly,” added Johannes Homa, CEO of Lithoz. “We believe there’s a huge potential in ceramic additive manufacturing for the Moon.”
With the series of parts successfully 3D printed, ESA and Lithoz will move ahead with their collaboration to test the strength and mechanical performance of the parts. If they perform well, the parts could be a model for replacement parts ultimately 3D printed on a lunar base.
The lunar regolith 3D printing exploration is being conducted as part of the URBAN project, itself supported by ESA’s Discovery and Preparation Programme. Interestingly, the space agency is also exploring using simulated Mars regolith as a 3D printing material.