The In-Space Refabricator
While 3D printers are technology that many people are familiar with, there’s one 250 miles above us on the International Space Station (ISS) that’s unlike anything currently found on Earth. It’s known as the Refabricator, a hybrid 3D printer that can recycle its hard, polymer plastic numerous times to make new items. About the size of a dorm room refrigerator, the device is controlled by operators on Earth who oversee its manufacturing via video cameras.
Niki Werkheiser, NASA’s In-Space Manufacturing Manager at Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Alabama says: “Recyclers on Earth grind plastic pellets to create their products. But that grinding creates material sheer which prevents you from reusing that plastic again – it’s no longer strong enough. For this technology demonstration, the company Tethers Unlimited developed a novel recycling process that doesn't require grinding – and that allows us to recycle the plastic multiple times.”
The ability to reuse the plastic over and over again is essential for long-term space exploration. Werkheiser says: “We can replace a lot of the things we need when we’re orbiting above Earth; we just have them delivered on a resupply mission. But when you’re in deep space, you don’t have that option; you have to have the ability to make all of the parts you might need, and without having a large stockpile of extra materials.”
The Refabricator can even recycle plastic items not normally associated with Earthbound 3D printers. For instance, almost all of the materials that are delivered to the station are packed using foam or plastic bags. Both can be loaded into the Refabricator to deliver items such as a plastic syringe, an eating utensil, or a custom made wrench. That ability limits the amount of backup materials you need to take with you on a long range expedition. After all, in space, space is at a premium.
The Refabricator’s technology demonstration will be composed of two phases. During each phase the Refabricator will perform seven cycles of recycling and printing parts while onboard the ISS. All of the items printed by the Refabricator will eventually be sent back to Earth for testing and analyses to determine the effects of repeated recycling on the material properties of the plastic.
Werkheiser notes, “I’m very excited about this technology both in space and back on Earth. I can envision a day where you go to your grocery store and drop your water bottles and plastic bags into a Refabricator, and then select your new phone case or a kitchen gadget or the raw filament that you can use in your 3D printer at home.”
For more science from the International Space Station, go to www.nasa.gov/iss-science
For more information about how the promise of future exploration is transforming today’s technology, visit science.nasa.gov