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Lassonde Professor receives NFRF grant to explore 3D and 4D printing in space

Spacecrafts are manufactured with extra materials and spare parts to prepare for potential mission challenges and vicious movements during launch, making them overdesigned for the calm, vacuum, zero-gravity environment in space. This excessive use of materials contributes to unnecessary waste, financial burdens and launch and process-related carbon dioxide emissions on Earth. With the support of a recent grant from the New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF), Professor George Zhu from the Mechanical Engineering Department at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering, is conducting innovative research that explores metal manufacturing for space equipment using 3D and 4D printing in space – to satisfy the actual demands of materials needed.

“Less than five percent of spare parts carried on space missions are actually used,” says Professor Zhu. “If equipment was manufactured where it is needed, we could make space exploration more sustainable. We want this to work but at this stage, we don’t know what will happen. We are actually the first to do this kind of research with metals.”

This ambitious work will proceed with collaborative efforts from Mechanical Engineering Professors Alidad Amirfazli, Cuiying Jian and Aleksander Czekanski, taking full advantage of the diverse fields of mechanical engineering research at Lassonde, including space instrumentation and robotics, molecular dynamics, metals and alloy materials and fluid mechanics.

“Space has different conditions than Earth that will affect 3D printing, mainly zero-gravity and vacuum, so there will be a lot of exploratory work,” says Professor Zhu. “When we use 3D printing on Earth, the gravity helps create strong bonds, but we don’t know what will happen in conditions without gravity. It is possible that the vacuum might cause molten metals to vaporize and disappear right in front of us.” Using equipment obtained with substantial funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) in 2019, this project will simulate space-like conditions to determine the feasibility of, and potential practices, for metal 3D printing in space. 3D printing will be performed in a large vacuum chamber, while modelling zero-gravity by printing in a horizontal orientation rather than vertical – this helps avoid the direct pressure from gravity that supports the creation of strong bonds.

6 Degrees-of-Freedom robotic laser-metal 3D printing system from Addtec.
6 Degrees-of-Freedom robotic laser-metal 3D printing system from ADDiTEC.

This research will also explore the use of 4D printing in space, a new method of 3D printing that incorporates the dimension of time and may be useful in the development of deployable spacecraft components, like solar panels. Using shape memory alloys (SMA), 4D printed materials can remember and revert to their original shape after being deformed by certain stimuli, presenting a potential application for spacecrafts that spend long periods of time in space and are vulnerable to damage from debris.

Contributing to sustainable space, this exploratory project will take the first steps towards using space as an on-demand manufacturing site for space equipment. This project will also explore new and exciting ideas that can change and improve the design of space equipment, including the recycling of materials from debris to repair and manufacture materials for space activities.

“We have plans and ideas for applications, but this research is very new,” says Professor Zhu. “I’m excited to learn as we go and discover the unknown. If this is successful, it will change the future of space exploration.”