The Strangest 3D Printer of All Time Just Solved One of Space Exploration's Biggest Problems

Monday, 09 April 2018 - 11:59AM
Monday, 09 April 2018 - 11:59AM
The Strangest 3D Printer of All Time Just Solved One of Space Exploration's Biggest Problems
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Image credit: YouTube

The biggest pain surrounding printing anything—whether in 2D or 3D—is making sure you've got enough printer material.

Whether you're running out of toner or polymer, nothing's worse than coming to the printer to find that you can't spontaneously generate a copy of the text or Lego bricks that you were hoping to get your hands on.

This problem becomes all the more challenging for astronauts, who can't exactly drive round to their local Staples to pick up supplies.

Looking for a way to improve the feasibility of long-term space colonization projects, scientists from the University of Calgary have found a potential solution that will use the one resource that humans will always have at their disposal: fecal matter.

That's right—scientists have engineered a 3D printer that recycles human poop into useful tools.

Not only is the project gross, but it's also scary—the process involves using genetically modified E Coli bacteria to break down fecal waste in order to create polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB). The resulting 3D printer material has been named astroplastic (although asstroplastic or astroplasstic would also be appropriate).

The astroplastic needs to ferment after it's initially been recycled by the E Coli bacteria, but once it's ready, it can be fed into a 3D printer without additional tweaking, allowing for the construction of tools that can be used for maintaining equipment in space. It's probably unlikely that astronauts will be eager to print out knives and forks, though.

Efforts to turn human waste into useful astro-tools already take many forms. American astronauts aboard the International Space Station already drink filtered urine water. The Russian side of the ISS, on the other hand, doesn't recycle its urine, so American astronauts have been known to try their best to take the Russians' pee bags off their hands when possible.

There's also a similar experiment that's in development which involves attempting to turn urine into plastic for 3D printing. If both of these experiments bear fruit, astronauts could be well on their way to running more efficiently, with far less waste, while traveling the stars.

This is good news for the astronauts of the future—already, much of the equipment in orbit around the Earth is covered in a thin film of feces thanks to previous space missions that see astronauts dump their poop directly into the vacuum of space. Everything that enters the vacuum has to go somewhere, and we're all better off if there's less gross stuff in orbit around our planet.

One big benefit of the new astroplastic is that the equipment necessary to convert poo into usable materials is actually relatively light—just 900kg, compared with the 2,000kg weight of the ISS' water recycling equipment. This could mean a waste management solution that won't by too difficult to transport into space.

Who knows? In years to come, this technology might even become commonplace here on Earth—after all, we could all use a reliable source of plastic that's a little better for the environment.