Recycling in space Tethers Unlimited to test plastic grinding / 3D printing system aboard the ISS

Aug 31, 2016 | By Alec

3D printing in space has actually been a reality since 2014, when Made in Space first tested their zero-gravity 3D printer aboard the ISS. Since May of this year, you can even order parts that will be 3D printed on demand on their second generation zero-gravity 3D printer. The benefits of this technological breakthrough are obviously huge, as transportation costs can be significantly reduced if NASA only needs to send up basic 3D printable materials. But at the same time, all that plastic creates another challenge: waste. While you could just shoot it out in space and hope that the sun will take care of it, Washington-based Tethers Unlimited is working on a 3D printing and recycling solution.

It’s an interesting concept, as recycling is already proving itself as a cost-saving and environmentally-friendly solution right here on earth. Why not do the same aboard the ISS and, during a later stage, during the mission to Mars? It’s actually why NASA has just awarded this contract to the Washington-based Tethers Unlimited, an aerospace technology company.

Tethered Unlimited was actually founded back in 1994 by Robert Hoyt and Robert L. Forward, with Hoyt currently being the CEO of both Tethered and its Firmamentum division (focused on in-space construction and manufacturing). Forward is a well-known physicist and science fiction writer who died back in 2002. Known for his studies on gravitational radiation astronomy and advanced space propulsion, he met Hoyt while at the University of Washington – where Hoyt was researching space tethers for satellites. Fast forward 22 years, and the company is now developing a wide range of propulsion systems and satellite innovations for space and defense partners.

Their solution, which will be tested aboard the ISS in the near future, heavily relies on 3D printing. Their Positrusion Recycler will be used to recycle all the plastic waste produced by the astronauts, including packaging materials, utensils, food storage containers and even 3D printed parts. Transformed into 3D printable filament, this will be subsequently used to 3D print satellite components, any necessary replacement parts and various astronaut tools (including new utensils) with their Refabricator 3D printer.

If successful, this closed-loop system could save NASA a lot of money – understandable when you remember that it costs about $10,000 to launch a pound of supplies into space. But it will also reduce space waste and clear up room aboard spacecraft. “Currently, astronauts use disposable wet wipes to clean their utensils and food containers after use,” said mechanical engineer Kristen Turner. “These wet wipes then become trash that must be stowed, and they have to be resupplied on cargo launches.”

These benefits will be even more visible on during missions to Mars, which will take at least two years to complete and leave very little space for resupply efforts. “On a manned mission to Mars, the astronauts must bring everything they need with them,” said Refabricator developer Jesse Cushing. “Due to the incredibly high cost of launching mass to Mars, carrying every tool or replacement part that they might possibly need simply isn’t affordable. The Refabricator will demonstrate the ability to recycle plastic parts and waste to make new parts and tools on-demand.”

The Tethered engineers are referring to this solution as “recycling sporks in space”, as used dinnerware is currently one of the main forms of waste produced in space. But it will also positively affect the astronauts’ health by minimizing exposure to harmful microbes by sterilizing and recycling, rather than reusing, utensils and food containers. Most importantly, the hardware is being designed to minimize material degradation as much as possible as well.

According to Hoyt their Refabricator and Positrusion Recycler will also be as automated as possible. “We needed to make it as completely automated and completely safe as possible,” Hoyt explained. “Astronauts’ time is more valuable than gold. They are extremely busy on missions.”

The Positrusion Recycler in a standard NASA container.

The devices, which are currently under development, are scheduled to be sent to the ISS in early 2017. Funding is being supplied by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program. While private players are appearing in the aerospace industry, Hoyt believes that institutes like NASA will continue to play a leading role in development. “They’ll always be a role for government in space,” Hoyt says, “but the real commercial opportunities will be the business side of space.”

However, Tethers also has its eye on earthly applications for its recycling and 3D printing equipment. The amounts of packaging material is only growing everywhere, and much of it could benefit from more localized recycling. And even those materials could find their way into a second life as satellite parts for the growing fleet of mini communication and data-gathering satellites. 3D printing clearly has a role to play in a cleaner and more efficient future, both in space and here on earth.

Posted in 3D Printer

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