Researchers at Washington State University have successfully 3D printed basic shapes with simulated moon rock, offering the first glimpse of a future in which off world explorers or colonists may be able to fabricate parts and components composed of lunar or Martian surface matter.
The research came about as a result of an approach in 2010 from NASA to Washington State University's Amit Bandyopadhyay, posing the question of whether 3D fabrication using moon rock was possible.
NASA duly provided Bandyopadhyay and fellow researcher Susmita Bose with 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of simulated raw lunar regolith (or surface material), which NASA uses for research purposes. The material is made of oxides of silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron and magnesium.
Bose and Bandyopadhyay were a logical choice for an approach from NASA given their work into the 3D printing of orthopedic implants using simulated bone.
WSU reports that, though researchers were dubious about the possibility of melting the simulated material, they found it behaved similar to silica, and have been able to build simple shapes. That's not exactly ideal, since silica, or silicon dioxide, has a high melting point of 2,230° C (4046° F). However, this does put us in mind of the sand-melting Solar-Sinter 3D printer.
"It doesn't look fantastic, but you can make something out of it," Bandyopadhyay said of the simulated moon rock. But it may be that the real potential lies in additive manufacturing, supplementing moon rock with additives from Earth.