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Wichita State to lead NASA research for improved in-space manufacturing plans

The new technology, based on electrospinning, is expected to overcome fundamental challenges faces by current AM-based ISM technology

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According to Wichita State University (WSU), it is set to lead a three-year project to assist NASA’s manufacturing paradigm shift from ‘factories on earth’ to ‘factories in space’. “Physics-Informed-AI Enabled Smart Electrospinning of Nanofiber Membranes Towards In-Space Manufacturing” is funded by a NASA grant of $750,000. The project consists of multi-institutional partnerships including Wichita State University, Kansas State University, and the University of Kansas.

“This project will pioneer a new in-space manufacturing technology based on electrospinning,” said Dr. Wujun Si, assistant professor at WSU’s College of Engineering. “It will significantly overcome some fundamental challenges faced by the current ISM technology based on additive manufacturing.”

Project success will enable the universities to develop a new research enterprise directed toward long-term, self-sustaining, nationally competitive aerospace research capabilities for in-space manufacturing (ISM), which contributes to Kansas’ aerospace economy, and expands the nation’s base for aerospace research and development.

Spirit AeroSystems will use its manufacturing expertise to support the development, characterization, and enhancement of nanofiber electrospun membranes in collaboration with the project partners,” said Kim Caldwell, Senior Director of Spirit AeroSystems Global Research & Technology. “This research will make it more feasible to eventually fabricate parts on space factories enabling new scientific and economic missions.”

Wichita State to lead NASA research for improved in-space manufacturing plans based on based on electrospinning.
Dr. Wujun Si. Source: Wichita State University.

The proposed innovative system will facilitate a series of future complex and long-duration deep space missions that were previously impossible. NASA’s launch of Artemis I in 2022 and subsequent Artemis missions demonstrate that in-space manufacturing is of immediate need and essential to enable flexible on-demand manufacturing and mission sustainability.

The ISM technology is at an early stage and mostly rooted in additive manufacturing. It is well known that the printing process is significantly impacted by gravity. However, in-space environments (such as zero/micro-gravity and vacuum) are quite different from Earth’s conditions. This substantially limits the ISM capability of additive manufacturing.

The project proposes a new electrospinning-based ISM technique. Compared with additive manufacturing, this electrospinning-based manufacturing paradigm does not rely on gravity and fabricates nanostructured thin parts like functional membranes in space, which complements the additive manufacturing of macroscale solid parts.

The NASA Marshall Space Flight Center directly leads the national ISM program. The NASA Ames Research Center and NASA Glenn Research Center, and two government agencies (Argonne National Laboratory and Applied Physics Laboratory) are involved, as are business/industry partners Spirit AeroSystems and HCI Energy.

Wichita has earned a reputation as the ‘Air Capital of the World’ since 1928 and has bases in multiple leading aircraft/aerospace industries.

A broad class of research-integrated educational initiatives with a wide range of dissemination and outreach activities is expected to attract students to pursue data science and advanced manufacturing studies, research, and careers, especially female and underrepresented minority groups.

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Edward Wakefield

Edward is a freelance writer and additive manufacturing enthusiast looking to make AM more accessible and understandable.

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