€500,000 available in Metalysis and ESA space exploration competition

The European Space Agency (ESA) and UK metallurgic company Metalysis have launched a €500,000-reward competition to devise systems that will aid space exploration.

The competition is to design a process-monitoring system that works with Metalysis’s existing electrochemical cells. These cells convert refined oxides and ores into metal alloy powders, including those used in 3D printing for aerospace, automotive and manufacturing industries.

If electrochemical cells can harness off-world ores and turn them into 3D printing materials, astronauts could one-day 3D print whatever they need, in space, without the need for costly supply runs from Earth. ESA explains that in-situ resource utilisation is vital, “to sustainability, and a stepping stone in humankind’s adventure to Mars and farther into the Solar System.”

Metalysis metal powder. Photo via the company
Metalysis metal powder. Photo via Metalysis.

Living on the moon

It is hoped that Metalysis’ materials technology can be applied to in-situ resource utilization.

Using the South Yorkshire-based company’s electrochemical cells, astronauts could produce the materials required for construction and manufacturing of equipment on-site, as well as propellant for landers and ascenders. The ability to use local raw materials to build technology on the moon is a necessary first step in eventual colonization on the moon, Mars, or further afield.

This competition follows continued initiatives by the ESA to greater utilise 3D printing for producing in-situ materials in space. This includes a partnership with Austrian ceramic 3D printing specialist Lithoz to create detailed spare parts from a lunar regolith simulant – an Earth material synthesized to approximate raw materials found on the moon. The agency envisions using 3D printers to build a lunar base.

To win the Metalysis–ESA Grand Challenge, entrants must design a prototype circuit (aka a breadboard) that demonstrates the following:

  1. the ability to be attached to an existing electrochemical cell developed by Metalysis and to retrieve process related data from the cell;
  2. a total size of the equipment which is applicable to the size of the electrochemical cell, and modular with Metalysis’ technology scale up;
  3. a level of energy consumption which is only marginal to the energy employed by the electrolytic cell;
  4. the ability to detect changes occurring at the cathode during the process including the metallic status of the product.

Also of interest to the judging panel are breadboards which will provide live information on the salt properties and composition of the metal. ESA suggests that the following analysis techniques are likely to be of use: X-ray diffraction and/or fluorescence; raman, infrared or laser spectroscopy; and neutron scattering.

Photo shows the Metalysis process of turning ores into metal alloy powders. Photo via Metalysis.
Photo shows the Metalysis process of turning ores into metal alloy powders. Photo via Metalysis.

Other projects for 3D printing in space

Companies that have made plans to use extraterrestrial materials include Made In Space, a Californian maker of “off-world” 3D printers, which devised a plan to turn asteroids into autonomous spacecrafts that could fly to mining stations in outer space. Earlier last year, NASA renewed its Small Business Innovation Research contract with Made In Space, encouraging the company to continue developing its Vulcan Hybrid Manufacturing System, which, once complete, will be capable of working more than 30 different materials, both polymers and metals.

Aluminum NASA logo made using Made In Space's Vulcan manufacturing system. Photo via Made in Space
Aluminum NASA logo made using Made In Space’s Vulcan manufacturing system. Photo via Made in Space.

Metalysis’ recent developments

Last September, Metalysis entered industrial-scale production, now capable of producing about 10,000 – 100,000 kg of metal powders using its Generation 4 industrial powder production plant.

The company also entered the FAST-forge project to produce metal alloys from lower priced inputs. Specifically, this involves taking a solid feedstock and producing a solid product without melting it. This process is applicable to about 30-40 elements in the periodic table, the company estimates.

The three steps in the Fast-forge process from left to right. Photo via Metalysis.

To enter the Metalysis–ESA Grand Challenge, apply via the ESA website.

Are you impressed with Metalysis, the ESA or any of the other organisations mentioned in this article? You can nominate them in the 2019 Printing Industry Awards.

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Featured image shows an artist’s rendition of a Moon base. Image via ESA.