Microgravity 3D printing in a nickel-charged gas medium

01/22/13 19:40:00    

By Michael Mealling

Some good friends of mine announced a new company earlier today:

I'm still digging into the details but one of the most interesting is the 3D printing technology they're using:

The company has a patent-pending technology called the MicroGravity Foundry to transform raw asteroid material into complex metal parts. The MicroGravity Foundry is a 3D printer that uses lasers to draw patterns in a nickel-charged gas medium, causing the nickel to be deposited in precise patterns.

“The MicroGravity Foundry is the first 3D printer that creates high-density high-strength metal components even in zero gravity,” said Stephen Covey, a co-Founder of DSI and inventor of the process. “Other metal 3D printers sinter powdered metal, which requires a gravity field and leaves a porous structure, or they use low-melting point metals with less strength.”

In space manufacturing from raw materials is one of the longest poles in the tent for moving human civilization permanently off planet. Current 3D printing technology requires specialy manufactured media, usually some kind of polymer. Even selective laser sintering requires media that is highly refined. All of the other methods require gravity. This is the first time I've seen something that claims to print non-porous, high-strength metal.

Many have suggested that Deep Space Industries is a “me too” version of Planetary Resources, and I'll have to see how things develop on the funding side, but 3D printing of high strength metals in microgravity is a definite advantage for in-space manufacturing. Enough of an advantage that DSI can't be dismissed out of hand. Planetary Resources is going after the water and then the precious metals left overs. To them the nickel in an M-type asteroid is a distraction. To Deep Space Industries its an advantage.

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