One of the challenges of putting a colony on the moon is the need for stuff: building materials, food, and tools. Fortunately, researchers at Washington State University are working on a project that would help lunar colonists make some of those tools right at home: developing 3D printers that can print tools out of moon rock.
In 2010, NASA approached Amit Bandyopadhyay, a professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Washington State University, about the possibility of printing 3D materials out of regolith, the substance that covers the surface of the moon. Bandyopadhyay and fellow professor Susmita Bose are well-known 3D printing researchers who have created 3D-printed bone-like structures for orthopedic implants. NASA provided their team with 10 pounds of raw lunar regolith simulant—the material NASA uses to study moon rocks—and they got to work.
So far, the results aren't gorgeous, but they are promising. The researchers found that combination of silicon, aluminum, calcium, iron and magnesium oxides melts in a way similar to silica, and were able to construct a few simple shapes using a 3D printer. Bandyopadhyay suggests that combining the regolith with some Earth-based additives could increase the possibilities for moon rock printing, allowing for stronger building materials—and greater control over the material's geometry—than with regolith alone.
Bandyopadhyay and his team published their findings in the Rapid Prototyping Journal.