Incus, a leading provider of Lithography-based Metal Manufacturing (LMM) solutions, successfully completed a joint 18-month project with the European Space Agency (ESA), OHB System AG, and Lithoz GmbH to test the potential of 3D printing and zero-waste workflow for the lunar environment.
The ESA-sponsored project, developed by Incus and Lithoz GmbH under the coordination of OHB System AG as prime contractor, aimed to research the feasibility of processing lunar scrap metals (which might be recovered from debris from old missions or old satellites) to produce high-quality printed parts using additive manufacturing (AM), specifically Lithography-based Metal Manufacturing, also taking into consideration potential in situ contamination by using lunar regolith simulant.
The project’s goal was to develop a sustainable process that uses lunar resources and recycled scrap metals, eventually contaminated by lunar dust, to produce spare parts on-site which could help and enhance human settlement on the Moon. The successful use of lunar resources and recycling of scrap metals is vital to the creation of a sustainable Moon base. Lithography-based Metal Manufacturing was selected for its ability to print from recycled metal waste and its ease and safety during printing and post-processing.
The biggest challenge for lunar additive manufacturing is the harsh lunar environment, including the atmosphere, gravity, temperature, radiation, and the potential contamination of moon dust. However, the Incus 3D printing solution, Hammer Lab35, was able to print recycled Titanium powder while maintaining proper part quality. The produced parts demonstrated a high level of strength, comparable to Metal Injection Molded Titanium parts standards (1000-1050 MPa).
The LMM technology used in the project can print from scrap metals using pre-mixed feedstock, without free and loose powder and the need for any support structures, offering a sustainable zero-waste workflow. The project also included the development of a green binder and the optimization of pre- and post-processing steps to print and test different demonstrators for future lunar applications.
The project’s results have important implications for the future of space exploration and the development of sustainable Moon bases. “This project has proven that LMM technology is able to use recycled powder for the feedstock material and provide sustainable zero-waste workflow,” said Incus CEO Dr. Gerald Mitteramskogler. “We expect that further developments in metal recycling technologies will open the way to metal materials with more settled sintering processes for the lunar environment.”
The project’s optimal scenario for the 3D printing habitat on the Moon base is comparable to that on Earth, with reduced gravity and human-graded radiation shielding, ensuring that no major modifications or redesigns are required aside from the size, mass and volume reduction of the 3D printer. “Considering the challenge of bringing humans back to the Moon and building a base, the topic of in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) is gaining significant momentum. Projects like this, recently completed by Incus and project partners, demonstrate that manufacturing methods like LMM are very good candidates to support such an endeavour” highlighted Dr. Martina Meisnar, Materials and Processes Engineer at ESA.
“This successful collaboration showed that lithography-based AM techniques are among the most promising candidates to let 3D printing in space become a reality in the future,” concluded Dr. Martin Schwentenwein, Head of Material Development at Lithoz.
“The use of local lunar resources, as well as the recycling of old spacecraft, are essential for a sustainable and Earth-independent Moon base. Through this project, it was proven that the LMM technology is able to use recycled powder sources as feedstock material. Furthermore, it was demonstrated that contaminations for the powder sources by using lunar regolith simulant are manageable, especially from the perspective of the printing process. With those aspects in mind, as well as the future challenges already foreseen and anticipated, upcoming research and development will be able to continue and open-up further the way towards a sustainable Moon settlement finally released from Earth dependency,” stated Francesco Caltavituro, System Engineer for the project at OHB.