As we already well know, NASA is working to build a research base on the moon to send the first astronauts to Mars, and as a result of this, the development of Lunar construction is growing rapidly. A master’s student from the Florida International University (FIU) – Brandon Aguiar – seems to be a promising player within the industry.
Aguiar is developing a 3D printing technique that makes durable structures out of lunar dust, and has already produced igloos, building blocks, and cubes with complex angles and curvatures.
“It’s very expensive to ship supplies to space. One pound of material can cost thousands of dollars,” said Aguiar. “Just imagine what it would cost taxpayers to ship entire houses to the moon. Instead, we can use the material that is already there to build infrastructure.”
Lunar dust is a powder consisting of tiny, irregularly-shaped rocks. It covers the moon and can present a potential hazard for astronauts. In previous missions, the dust has eroded spacesuits and sensitive equipment. Aguiar’s research would flip this hazard into an asset.
Using a lunar dust simulant provided by NASA, he is working with a material that has approximately five times the hardness of mild steel, and is focusing on how to make his 3D printed objects withstand all the perils of the moon – including radiation, asteroids, and temperature swings.
Aguiar works under the guidance of engineering experts at FIU’s Plasma Forming Laboratory, such as Ambreen Nisar, a research assistant professor who researches ceramic materials used for space exploration and hypersonic vehicles.
“On Earth, temperatures are very different depending on where you go. The weather in Miami is super hot, but somewhere in the northwest, it’s still freezing. The same happens when you are on the moon,” said Nisar. “Any material that is used needs to withstand extreme thermal shock.”
Aguiar joins other researchers around the country who are focused on making structures out of lunar dust. In particular, Aguiar is focused on finding a way to manufacture the structures to withstand the harshest elements of space – the key to which is getting the parameters of the 3D printing and treatment process right. He does this by mixing the space dust with a glue-like resin to bind the small rocks together. Then, he 3D prints the material and puts it through a furnace – acquiring the desired shape and burning away the resin.
“When I’m teaching my new students, I always use the example of cooking to explain materials engineering,” said Professor Arvind Agarwal, director of the Plasma Forming Laboratory. “You can make a chicken into either grilled chicken or fried chicken. The taste is completely different, but the starting material is the same. The same goes for lunar dust used in Brandon’s research. By modifying how he ‘cooks’ the dust, he can completely change how his structures perform.”
Brandon Aguiar will continue his research on a Presidential Fellowship as a Ph.D. student at FIU this fall. His 3D printing method and parameters are pending patents and were recently published in a journal. His research is a continuation of a senior project done by FIU Ph.D. student Kazue Orikasa, who is now researching how plastics could be used to protect technology in space.