Bothell, Washington-based Tethers Unlimited Inc. (TUI), has been awarded a NASA contract to develop a recycling program for the International Space Station (ISS) and for future manned missions in space. The recycling program being developed by engineers and scientists at TUI is called “Positrusion™”, and it will eventually convert plastic waste from the ISS into 3D printer filament that can be used on-board to make replacement parts, satellite components, and tools.
Jesse Cushing, TUI’s Principal Investigator for the Positrusion project says, “Positrusion is a new approach to making 3D printer feedstock that produces filament with much more consistent diameter and density than traditional extrusion processes. That consistency will improve the quality of tools and other parts produced by 3D printers on the station.”
Positrusion recycling technology is just one component of TUI’s bigger SpiderFab 3D printer that will allow in-space printing of large spacecraft components like solar panels, trusses and antennas. Together with SpiderFab, Positron is a part of a larger space printing ecosystem. In reaction to the receiving the contract with NASA, TUI CEO and Chief Scientist Rob Hoyt, elaborated on how this ecosystem is developing:
We are very excited to continue working with the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center to enable sustainable in-space manufacturing. Our long-term goal is to create the capability to construct the habitats, spacecraft, and other infrastructure necessary for exploration and settlement of the solar system using raw material launched from Earth as well as resources available in the space environment. We are developing a robust ecosystem of additive manufacturing technologies to make this possible, including 3D-printed ‘Versatile Structural Radiation Shielding’ (VSRS), Structural Multi-Layer Insulation (S-MLI), and our Trusselator™ and SpiderFab™ technologies for fabricating key satellite components such as antennas and solar arrays. The Positrusion technology is an important part of this ecosystem, providing a way to process materials that would otherwise be thrown away into valuable feedstock for our in-space additive manufacturing systems.
What does this mean for 3D printing enthusiasts not heading to deep space in their lifetime? TUI believes their Positrusion system has significant potential to help in earthbound plastic recycling efforts. Jeffrey Slostad, TUI’s Chief Engineer, says, “For a recycler to be useful on the ISS, it has to meet stringent safety requirements, and its design needs to minimize the amount of time an astronaut must spend operating it, so we designed the Positrusion recycler to be as safe and simple to operate as a microwave oven, and we believe a consumer version of this machine will be ideal for recycling household and office waste.”
Reuse. Reduce. Recycle…NASA style.