Mankind is accelerating its exploration of space and the universe at an increasingly rapid pace. Manned habitations such as the International Space Station (ISS) have been in existence for over 20 years. We are on the cusp of starting to launch deep space exploration missions, but there are many challenges to overcome related to prolonged existence in space stations and transport vehicles to ensure our pioneers are able to live and operate in clean and safe environments. Facilities like the ISS harbour and nurture dangerous bacteria that are detrimental to humans, where already studies are starting to show that astronauts experience issues related to reduced immune systems, a syndrome called Immune System Dysregulation.
Recent research has demonstrated that commonly found bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus have higher antibiotic resistance in microgravity conditions. There is a critical need for preventive countermeasures to mitigate microbial risks during space flight missions where a simple cut can become deadly.
The use of antimicrobial 3D printed materials to create medical devices and tools offers one way to reduce these risks; materials such as those offered by Copper3D, which is currently working with NASA Nebraska Space Grant to test the properties of its materials in space environments.
A collaboration of organisations, which includes NASA Nebraska Space Grant, Copper3D, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, the University of Nebraska Biomechanics Center and 3D LifePrints, is running an Open Innovation Contest in October this year that will challenge participants to design medical devices and tools for use in space. 3D LifePrints, a leading UK based medical 3D printing organisation, has been designing and manufacturing anti-microbial medical devices in pilot studies within the UK’s NHS Health system.
Potential applications for the material using antimicrobial 3D printing technologies include medical devices for use with deep space astronauts in sleep hibernation pods, temporary splints for fractures, personalised sanitation systems and personalised wearables with bio-sensors.
The judging panel for the competition has a wide variety of expertise in space, bio-engineering, material science and medical devices and includes Dr. Scott Tarry (Director of NASA Nebraska Space Grant), Dr. Jorge Zuniga (Professor of Biomechanics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha), Rakesh Srivastava (CEO of SHABRI LLC), Daniel Martinez (Co-founder & Innovation Director of Copper3D) and Paul Fotheringham (Founder & CTO of 3D LifePrints). The judging panel commented on their expectations for the event:
Daniel Martínez said: “We are very excited about this event as it will gather talent from student teams across the globe who will contribute ideas, concepts and solutions to the important challenges facing NASA in the context of long-term space missions. A new nanocomposite developed in collaboration with the company Tiamet3D will be the ideal material to face the demands of NASA, with a highly antimicrobial Nano-Copper based additive and the high strength & stiffness of a Nano-Diamond based additive. We believe that Antimicrobial 3D Printing will be fundamental in ensuring safer and successful space missions in the future”.
Paul Fotheringham said: “3D LifePrints has been using 3D technologies to create patient specific medical devices for the past 5 years in order to improve patient outcomes, but have been limited by the availability of medical 3D printing materials. The introduction of Copper3D’s antimicrobial filament is game changing in many ways and I truly believe that in order for mankind to become an interplanetary species we have to use technological advances such as this to ensure we are healthy enough to withstand the harsh challenges that space exploration brings. This competition will be the trigger to excite people to design innovative devices to help overcome these challenges”
Jorge Zuniga said: “This event is unique in bringing academics and industry collaborators from around the world to contribute and support students in the implementation of antimicrobial solutions in space.”
The use of 3D printing technologies is becoming more and more crucial for our ability to successfully explore space and live safely. The provision of in-space 3D manufacturing capabilities such as 3D printers from Made In Space has a number of additional benefits that include cost and time reduction – the cost per kilogram to send items into space currently starts at $50,000 and if an item breaks and there are no spares available it could take months before a replacement can be acquired. The European Space Agency is investigating the potential for using 3D printing robots to create Lunar Moon Bases and NASA recently ran a challenge for the use of 3D printing to create Mars Habitats.
SpaceX, a private commercial organisation led by Elon Musk has revolutionised the space sector into a new and competitive era in a short period of time. They have embraced 3D printing techniques in order to manufacture their SuperDraco thrusters engines that power their Dragon capsule. This capsule will soon begin to transport NASA astronauts to the ISS. 3D printing has enabled SpaceX to create and manufacture highly complex rocket engine designs in a single print, significantly reduce costs and assembly time. They have also used 3D printers to manufacture their futuristic space helmets.