NASA To Recycle Plastics in Space

Refabricator machine is a recycler and 3D printer in one unit. 

There’s been quite a few new developments regarding 3D printing in space. The latest combines 3D printing and recycling: NASA is launching a machine that 3D prints plastic parts and also recycles them back into reusable raw materials to make more parts. 

The machine, called the “Refabricator,” is a device that will accept plastic materials of various sizes and shapes and turn them in to the feedstock used to 3D-print items. The whole process happens in a single automated machine about the size of a dorm room refrigerator, NASA said. NASA had awarded a Small Business Innovation Research contract to Tethers Unlimited Inc. of Seattle in April 2015, to build the recycling system.

It simply won’t be feasible to send along replacement parts or tools for everything on the spacecraft, and resupplying from Earth is cost and time prohibitive.

“When we begin launching humans to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, space will be at a premium,” said Niki Werkheiser, manager of In-Space Manufacturing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where the device will be thoroughly tested before launching to the space station. “It simply won’t be feasible to send along replacement parts or tools for everything on the spacecraft, and resupplying from Earth is cost and time prohibitive. The Refabricator will be key in demonstrating a sustainable logistics model to fabricate, recycle, and reuse parts and waste materials.”

“The Refabricator demonstration is a key advance toward our vision of implementing a truly sustainable, in-space manufacturing ecosystem,” said Rob Hoyt, CEO of TUI. “Astronauts could use this technology to manufacture and recycle food-safe utensils, and turn what is now inconvenient waste into feedstock to help build the next generation of space systems. We believe re-using the waste could reduce the cost and risks for NASA and private space exploration missions.”

The Refabricator will complete final flight certification testing at the Marshall Center in late 2017 and is slated to launch to station in April 2018. Almost all operations will be remotely commanded and controlled from Marshall’s Payload Operations Integration Center—mission control for science on the space station—and TUI.

The Refabricator will be the first integrated recycler-manufacturer in orbit and may eventually be able to recycle and print, using metal as well as plastic, with very little monitoring from the station crew members. By 2020, NASA wants to create a Fabrication Laboratory, or FabLab, to test an integrated, multi-material, on-demand system.

“The FabLab would allow astronauts to select what they want or need from a catalogue of parts and then simply push a button to have it made,” said Werkheiser.

Hmm…we could use this technology on Earth too.