A 3D printer that uses simulated moon dust seems to work, according to Amit Bandyopadhyay, a professor at Washington State University’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering
(3D Printer Runs On Moon Dust video)
Typically, lasers use 300 to 400 watts to melt conductive metals. But the moon material was more similar to ceramics — Bandyopadhyay’s area of expertise. He had used that material for 3-D printing through selective laser sintering, where a powder is fused with intensely focused pulses of light, layer by layer, to form a specific object. He knew that throwing metal-specific levels of power at an insulator like this would only cause most of the energy to be absorbed, and the molten material to lose viscosity.
“If you go higher, then what will happen is you will go from honey to water, and then what happens?” says Bandyopadhyay. “It flows so much that you cannot make a part. So you need to have, you know, high enough to melt, but low enough not to overflow, basically. That’s the challenge.”
Bandyopadhyay’s team tweaked the power, scan, and feed rates on an Optomec LENS-750, a Tardis-sized, half-million-dollar, off-the-shelf additive manufacturing system that 3-D prints metals. Brought down to 50 watts, the researchers were able to uniformly melt and then re-solidify the (simulated) moon dust into 3-D objects, like bricks, that could be used for structures, radiation shields, insulating coatings, and so on.
Science fiction fans have not exactly been left in the dust by this development. In fact, in his 1951 novel The Moon is Hell, John W. Campbell wrote about marooned members of the second lunar expedition surviving by manufacturing solar cells using lunar materials.