Recent experiments by a team from the West Virginia University focused on how a weightless microgravity environment affects 3D printing using titania foam, a material with potential applications ranging from UV blocking to water purification. ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces published their findings.
“A spacecraft can’t carry infinite resources, so you have to maintain and recycle what you have, and 3D printing enables that,” said Lead Author Jacob Cordonier. “You can print only what you need, reducing waste. Our study looked at whether a 3D-printed titanium dioxide foam could protect against ultraviolet radiation in outer space and purify water.
“The research also allows us to see gravity’s role in how the foam comes out of the 3D-printer nozzle and spreads onto a substrate. We’ve seen differences in the filament shape when printed in microgravity compared to Earth gravity. And by changing additional variables in the printing process, such as writing speed and extrusion pressure, we’re able to paint a clearer image of how all these parameters interact to tune the shape of the filament.”
“Transporting even a kilogram of material in space is expensive and storage is limited, so we’re looking into what is called ’in-situ resource utilization,’” Contributing Author Konstantinos Sierros said. “We know the Moon contains deposits of minerals very similar to the titanium dioxide used to make our foam, so the idea is you don’t have to transport equipment from here to space because we can mine those resources on the moon and print the equipment that’s necessary for a mission.”
To measure titania foam’s effectiveness at blocking UV waves, “we would shine light ranging from the ultraviolet wavelengths up to the visible light spectrum,” he explained. “We measured how much light was getting through the titania foam film we had printed, how much got reflected back and how much was absorbed by the sample. We showed the film blocks almost all the UV light hitting the sample and very little visible light gets through. Even at only 200 microns thick, our material is effective at blocking UV radiation.”
Cordonier said the foam also demonstrated photocatalytic properties, meaning that it can use light to promote chemical reactions that can do things like purify air or water.
Team member Ronan Butts led experiments in contact angle testing to analyze how changes in temperature affected the foam’s surface energy. Butts called the research “a different type of challenge that students don’t always get to experience,” and said he especially valued the engagement component.
“Our team gets to do a lot of outreach with young students like the Scouts through the Merit Badge University at WVU. We get to show them what we do here as a way to say, ‘Hey, this is something you could do, too,’” Butts said.
“We’re trying to integrate research into student careers at an early point,” said Sierros. “We have a student subgroup that’s purely hardware and they make the 3D printers. We have students leading materials development, automation, data analysis. The undergraduates who have been doing this work with the support of two very competitive NASA grants are participating in the whole research process. They have published peer-reviewed scientific articles and presented at conferences.”
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