Athlone Institute of Technology has been contracted by the European Space Agency (ESA) to build up the world’s first vast scale, zero-gravity 3D printing machine for use on the International Space Station as part of a more extensive European consortium which incorporates German aerospace organization Sonaca Group, BEEVERYCREATIVE, a Portuguese 3D printer supplier, and OHB, a main German Space and Technology Group.

Named Project Imperial, the consortium will be draw on the expert knowledge of Dr Sean Lyons, Dean of Faculty of Engineering and Informatics, Dr Declan Devine, Director of the Materials Research Institute and Dr Ian Major, Principal Investigator at the Materials Research Institute, in the territories of additive manufacturing, advanced polymer materials and creating composites for challenging environments. The analysts will utilize high-strength, functional thermoplastics to create and convey a 3D printer equipped for making complex engineering structures bigger than itself.

“Traditionally, 3D printers are based around simple materials and applications. They might look the part but they’re not hard or strong enough to be fully functional. Using cutting-edge material science, we’re going to design components that can be modified or configured for printing in zero gravity conditions on board the International Space Station,” Dr Sean Lyons explained.

“There are several applications for this technology, imagine a door handle breaks on the ISS, it’s not feasible to send a payload from France all the way to the International Space Station with a spare handle. Through Project Imperial, the astronauts on board the ISS will be able to print parts as and when they are required. They’ll also be able to print bespoke parts: say if an astronaut broke their arm and needed a cast plaster, they’ll have the capability to print it in space themselves in-situ.”

Project Imperial will have an uplink connection with the astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS) to enable the group to all the more likely comprehend the astronaut’s electronic and space constraints. “It’s not as simple as if the project was terrestrially-based. We obviously can’t go up to discuss our designs with the astronauts or train them how to use this technology in person. We’ll also have to ensure that the panels are multilingual because you have quite a diverse group on board the ISS,” Dr Lyons said.

Also, the AIT group will take a gander at different applications for this technology, for example, territories where printing in zero gravity offers advantage to the material properties that may be helpful on earth. “Some cell scaffolds could be printed in a zero-gravity environment and then brought back to earth and implanted into a human. They would perform better than they would if they were printed under gravity constraints on earth. There are loads of potential applications for this.”

He included: “We’re delighted to be collaborating on such seminal research with the European Space Agency and our European partners Sonaca Group, BEEVERYCREATIVE and OHB. It’s an amazing opportunity to demonstrate exactly what we’re capable of and the breadth of skills and expertise on offer at our award-winning institute.”

Project Imperial is planned to keep running for two years – with the payload deployment expected by 2021. The 3D printed parts delivered by this new technology will exhibit the potential for extra-terrestrial manufacturing, empowering new maintenance and life bolster techniques for human space flight.