Crushed Martian rock composite can be used for 3D printing on the Red Planet

September 14, 2022

Researchers have found a way to make rocket tools and parts on Mars through additive manufacturing.

Mixing a small amount of crushed Martian rock with a titanium alloy makes a stronger material in a 3D printing process that could one day be used on Mars.

The researchers made the parts with no more than five percent to 100 percent of the Martian regolith, a black powdery substance meant to simulate the inorganic rocky material found on the Red Planet’s surface.

Whereas the 5% Martian regolith portions were strong, the 100% Martian regolith portions proved to be brittle and easily cracked. However, even materials with a high Martian content would be useful in making coatings to protect equipment from rust or radiation damage, says Amit Bandyopadhyay, corresponding author of the study in the International Journal of Applied Ceramic Technology.

“In space, 3D printing has to happen if we want to think about a manned mission because we really can’t carry everything from here,” says Bandyopadhyay, a professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Washington State University. “And if we forget something, we can’t go back to get it.”

Bringing materials into space can be very expensive. For example, it costs NASA’s space shuttle about $54,000 to put just one kilogram of payload (about 2.2 pounds) into Earth’s orbit, the researchers note. Anything that can be made in space, or on the planet, will save weight and money — not to mention something happens, astronauts will need a way to fix it on site.

Bandyopadhyay first demonstrated the feasibility of this idea in 2011 when his team used 3D printing to fabricate parts of lunar regolith, simulating crushed moon rocks, for NASA. Since then, space agencies have embraced the technology, and the International Space Station has its own 3D printers to manufacture materials needed on site and for experiments.

In this study, Bandyobadiaye, along with graduate students Ali Afrosian and Kelin Traxl, used a powder-based 3D printer to mix simulated Martian rock dust with an alloy of titanium, a metal often used in space exploration for its strength and heat-resistant properties.

As part of the process, a high-powered laser heated the materials to more than 2,000 degrees Celsius. Next, the molten mixture of Martian regolith ceramics and mineral materials flowed onto a moving platform that allowed the researchers to create different sizes and shapes. After cooling the material, the researchers tested it for strength and durability.

The ceramic material made of 100 percent Martian rock dust cracked as it cooled, but as Bandyopadhyay points out, it can still make good coatings for radiation shields because cracks don’t matter in this context.

But a little bit of Martian dust, a mixture that contains 5 percent of the regolith, not only cracked or exploded, but also showed better properties than the titanium alloy alone, meaning it could be used to make lighter pieces that could withstand heavier loads.

“It gives a material better and higher strength and stiffness, so it can perform better in some applications,” he says.

Bandyopadhyay says this study is just the beginning. Future research may yield better compounds using different metals or 3D printing techniques.

“This proves that this is possible, and maybe we should think in that direction because it’s not just making weak plastic parts, but metal-ceramic composite parts that are strong and can be used for any kind of structural part,” he says.

The National Science Foundation supported the research.

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