3D printer manufacturer Electronic Alchemy has developed a system capable of additive manufacturing fully functional electronics. Named eForge, NASA intends to use the system during planetary space missions to 3D print chemical sensors on demand. Following the launch of eForge, the company is also now designing a device to recycle 3D printed electronics, further reducing NASA’s need for resupply missions.
3D printed sensors in space
Resupply missions to astronauts in low earth orbit (LEO) can take months or even years. For planned missions to the Moon and Mars, resupply missions would take even longer. The ability to 3D print tools in space will allow astronauts to create the items they need on demand, without waiting for costly resupply missions. This is of particular value for mission critical devices and components such as sensors.
A few months ago, NASA allotted $2 million to develop 3D printed multisensor devices for space exploration. These sensors can be affixed to rovers and satellites to understand the composition of stars and planets. Nano Dimension, an Israeli electronics 3D printer manufacturer, is developing radio frequency (RF) space systems for NASA’s International Space Station.
NASA and Electronic Alchemy
Since 2016, Electronic Alchemy has been collaborating with NASA to 3D print electronics in outer space. The partnership first focused on developing filaments and prototypes for the eForge multi-material electronics 3D printer.
In 2017, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center contracted Electronic Alchemy to 3D print and test low-power graphene-based chemical sensors. In planetary space missions, corrosive gases can cause orbiting spacecrafts to lose altitude prematurely and plunge to Earth. The chemical sensors Electronic Alchemy designed are highly sensitive to these gases, providing fast detection. To produce these sensors on-demand, the center intends to bring eForge onto spacecrafts.
eForge 3D printing system version 1.0
eForge 3D prints electronics using Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). It has a minimum XYZ resolution of 12.7 μm, with z-axis accuracy down to 1.35 μm. On top of its high accuracy, the FDM printer also has a large build volume (315 x 264 x 319 mm) and high build speed (< 120 mm³ /s). With 8 extruders, the extruder block on eForge can simultaneously 3D print up to 8 different materials. Each material’s temperature is independently controlled and can reach up to 300°C.
Testing the eForge prototype, Electronic Alchemy has 3D printed a network of capacitive-based pressure sensors in a multi-layer shoe insole. This pressure sensor network functions has biometric identification, with over 95% accuracy after just three steps. The system has also shown capable of producing impact, vibrational, acoustic, optical, temperature and radio frequency sensors. The eForge ver 1.0 3D printer will be available for pre-sale from 1 October, 2019.
After successfully delivering the sensors and the eForge printer in June 2019, the team is now developing a recycling process for 3D printed electronics. A device recycling engine has been created to separate the multi-material prints back to their individual components. Each material will then be reconstituted as new filaments.
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Featured image shows the rear view of Electronic Alchemy’s eForge electronics 3D printer. Image via Electronic Alchemy.