Feb 2, 2011

How to colonise the Moon with a 3D printer

IT'S one thing to land on the Moon and trundle a rover around, but another thing entirely to build something when we get there.

If we're to mine the lunar surface for silver or tap its water supplies, we'll need infrastructure.

Considering it's taken 13 years to bolt the International Space
Station together piece by piece, it's not hard to imagine what kind of timeframe we're looking at to establish an entire working community on the Moon.

But here's a thought - can we print everything we need?

Wait, stay with me here.

What can you make with a 3D printer? Up until now, it's been mainly small items. Models, ceramics, small mass-produced components.

But several advances lately strongly suggest 3D printing will be anything but a cottage industry in the future.

In a nutshell, 3D printers work like a regular old-fashioned dot matrix printer, but instead of laying down ink, they lay down particles which build up to form an object.

Some machines start with a solid block of gel or vat of polymer and use lasers to harden it layer by layer into the shape required before washing away the excess.

A couple of years ago, a team at Bowling Green State University created a system which bonded ceramic powders into a type of clay which could be fired.

So how about a 3D printer in which it's big enough to print a brick house or a laboratory?

It certainly cuts down on lugging large amounts of materials to the Moon. Basically, we just need to transport a few tanks of polymer each trip.

Weight's not exactly an issue on the Moon. It could trundle around happily until it found a suitable site, run off off a small neighbourhood and give us a bell back on Earth when it's time to call the removalists.

"Sea of Tranquility, sir? Fine choice. Will that be hi-res or lo-res?"

What about transport? That's been done too. Just last year in the US, Kor Ecologic ran off the first hybrid vehicle ever to be completely drawn by a 3D printer.

Organ-printing's an interesting one that might also come in handy.

Research suggests that our bodies don't take too well to life in microgravity.

Kidney disease and urinary tract problems are among those noted in astronauts and there's an ongoing study into the possibility that bacteria are more resistant to antibiotics in space.

Certainly, bone density is a major issue, but organ printing is already well advanced here on Earth.

Instead of laying down powders, 3D printers deposit living cells onto gel structures, making the possibility of printing entire organs very real indeed.

3D printing our entire lives on the Moon? You know it makes sense.

All we need is someone who knows how to fix the paper jams.

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