3D-printed Martian rock and titanium alloy could be used on Mars to make rocket parts

They mixed Mars regolith and titanium to make it happen.
Nergis Firtina

A small amount of simulated crushed Martian rock mixed with a titanium alloy could be used on Mars to make tools or rocket parts, claim Washington State University researchers.

Pretty interesting, right? But it could be possible one day with 3D printing technology.

The Washington State University researchers put their efforts into making it real. They created the parts using as little as 5 percent up to 100 percent Martian regolith. The results were published in the International Journal of Applied Ceramic Technology on July 24.

Regolith is the loose, heterogeneous substance that covers the rock. It contains dust, soil, broken rock, and similar substances. It is found on Earth, the Moon, Mars, and some asteroids.

The researchers concluded that while pieces made with 5 percent regolith were quite strong, pieces made with 100 percent regolith were brittle. However, materials with a high Mars content could be used to create coatings that shield machinery from rust or radiation damage.

3D printing is quite useful in space

According to WSU, taking materials to space is extremely expensive. For example, the authors noted that it costs about $54,000 for the NASA space shuttle to place just one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of payload into Earth orbit.

"In space, 3D printing is something that has to happen if we want to think of a crewed mission because we really cannot carry everything from here," said Amit Bandyopadhyay, a professor in WSU's School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering.

"And if we forgot something, we cannot come back to get it."

How did the project start?

In 2011, Bandyopadhyay and his team used 3D printing to create parts for NASA out of lunar regolith, or mimicked crushed moon rock, to show that this concept was feasible. Since then, the technology has been adopted by space agencies, and the International Space Station now has its own 3D printers to produce materials on-site and for experiments.

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Together with graduate students Ali Afrouzian and Kelleb Traxel, Bandyopadhyay decided to use a 3D printer to mix titanium — a metal often used in space exploration for its strength and heat-resistant — with Martian rock dust.

The materials were heated during the procedure to almost 3,632°F (2000°C) by a powerful laser. Then, the researchers were able to make various sizes and forms using the melted mixture of Martian regolith-ceramic and metal material that flowed onto a moving platform.

The researchers put the material through strength and durability tests after it had cooled down.

“It gives you a better, higher strength and hardness material, so that can perform significantly better in some applications,” Bandyopadhyay said.

"This study is just a start," he also added.

The National Science Foundation also supported this research.

Study abstract

In order to investigate the in-space in situ resource utilization, directed energy deposition (DED)-based additive manufacturing (AM) has been utilized to process Martian regolith—Ti6Al4V (Ti64) composites. Here we investigated the processability of depositing 5, 10, and 100 wt% of Martian regolith premixed with Ti6Al4V using laser-based DED, analyzing the printed structure via X-ray diffraction, Vicker's microhardness, scanning electron microscopic imaging, and wear characteristics utilizing an abrasive water jet cutter to simulate abrasive environments on the Martian surface. The results indicate that the surface roughness and hardness of the composites increase with respect to the Martian regolith’s weight percentage due to in situ ceramic reinforcement. For instance, i5-wt% addition of Martian regolith increased the Vicker's microhardness from 366 ± 6 HV0.2 for as-printed Ti64 to 730 ± 27 HV0.2 while maintaining similar abrasive wear performance as Ti6Al4V. The results point toward laser-based AM for fabricating Ti64—Martian regolith composites with comparable properties. The study also reveals promising results in limiting the mass burden for future space missions, resulting in cheaper and easier launches.

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