Have you ever been stuck on the Moon just dying to rapidly make a tool? Why not try origami? A piece of clear plastic, a low power and a couple of minutes will suffice. No need for the giant laser of the National Ignition Facility above. That is the promise that LaserOrigami, a recently developed way to use a 2D laser cutter, delivers upon. By closely controlling how a defocused laser heats or cuts the flat plastic substrate, 3D shapes of surprising complexity can be created with a great level of control. While we are at it, we will also explore some other 3D production techniques.
It seems the Apollo 13 moments of the future, might look totally different now that we have arrived in the days of 3D printing.
Fast 2D to 3D processing using light and gravity
The innovative technique of LaserOrigami was developped by Stefanie Mueller, Bastian Kruck, and supervisor Patrick Baudisch, members of the human computer interface lab at the Hasso Plattner Institute in Germany. Their new finding was presented at CHI2013 (The ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems), where it won the best paper award.
The technique would come in quite handy on the moon in two ways. Not only does it allow you to ship feedstock material, like flat sheet plastics, in a tightly packed volume able to withstand the harshest launch environment vibrations, to be cut and formed into a 3D shape; once we can produce small batches of plastics sheets on the moon, we can quickly reshape them into useful items. Furniture, all kinds of infrastructure items, hydroponics gear, and a quick patch for a hole in the airlock, come to mind.
The technique is not limited to the plastic seen in the video, it could be used for all types of plastics and materials that will bend and stretch under the influence of a high intensity laser beam of which the settings can be modulated for the material and thicknesses used.
Experiments at Fraunhofer IWM are already under way to perform the same trick with sheets of glass, and if the hab can manage that kind of heat, it would be a welcome tool in the toolbox. Classic 3D printing is also becoming possible for a variety of glass objects, e.g. small glass fluid mixers for lab tests or maybe in the future a replacement habitat window, astronaut helmet glass replacement, camera lens or telescope lense replacement, a concentrator lense for a laser, and whatever glass object you might need. A link to the Nature article of the German team at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology that pulled this off is provided here or you can learn the essentials in this phys.org article.
Finally, metals too are receiving the same treatment, as this breakthrough technology, adapted from technology developped at the NIF, or National Ignition Facility, a laser fusion research faciliry in the USA, will allow for very fast printing of small batches of large volume metal items with various structural applications while slashing overhead. Find out the report of the team in the journal for Optronics here. Again a type of photomask is used (optically-addressable light valve (OALV)), instead of the current and slower raster-scanning techniques (Selective Laser Melting (SLM) of powdered metals).
KEEP expanding the base
Another promising 3D printing plastic involves KEEP plastics material
KEEP stands for, , and is already being explored by ESA for use in space as this video explores and demonstrates.
On the other side of the great Atlantic pond we have the Company CARBON who wowed experts with their M1 printer that uses layers and layers of light masks (think of an old fashioned projector projecting an image) to vertically pull super-complicated 3D objects super-fast out of a liquid bath of goo, consisting of a a variety of propriety chemical solutions and plastics. The technical name is clip or Continuous Liquid Interface Production and a lengthy in depth video made by the website www.TESTED.com will give you a very good introduction into this fast printer.
But why limit yourself to plastics? Why not use wood grown on the moon?
Microbes and plants are great. They don’t need much attention and will grow happily as long as the right nutrients and a decent living environment is provided. It is not unthinkable that we will use their prolific production capabilities to produce mats and sheets made of microbial and plant cells. These fibrous (plants have lignin) could be used for clothing, but in a more woody form their 2D form could again be processed into sturdy 3D shapes. While it is unlikely that the astronauts visiting or living on the moon will have much time to either weave clothes or baskets, when these materials are put into a laser cutter all sorts of objects and forms can be shaped, with great aesthetics to boot.
An example showing that flat wooden stock can even be converted to flexible 3D shaped objects, can be found in this kick-starter video from a while back, where a 2D laser cutter is used to produce what is called living hinges. Any stylish astronaut would quickly embrace the Scandinavian looking designs as a welcome addition to the plastic furniture we printed earlier.
While these techniques do not give us all the materials and combinations of materials we might need on a Moon base, they all promise to lighten the load and cost of the total amount of material we have to take along. Once the Moon becomes a net producer of materials, the way to a self sufficient and expanding Moon colony, supporting all our Sci Fi fantasies, will quickly loom closer.
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