NASA is considering recycling plastic for 3D printing on the International Space Station

When NASA sends a 3D printer to the International Space Station, it will dramatically improve the crew’s ability to fix unforeseen problems like broken parts and supply shortages. It will also reduce how much mass needs to be carried into space; instead of having a spare copy of everything, astronauts can just print parts as they are needed.

NASA is considering taking that reduction in material one step further by putting a plastic recycler on the ISS. The Made in Space printer that will board the ISS later this year prints in ABS plastic, which is the same type used in Legos and other common items. A recycler would allow the ISS crew to turn broken parts and other unneeded items back into the raw material on which the printer relies.

NASA is supporting research into a recycler with two $125,000 grants. One went to Made in Space, which is developing a recycler known as R3DO. The other was awarded to Tethers Unlimited, a company based outside Seattle that is pursuing robotics-based systems that could 3D print and assemble large structures in space. Tethers Unlimited’s recycler is called “Positrusion.”

A mock up of the SpiderFab system. Courtesy of Tethers Unlimited

A mock up of the SpiderFab system. Courtesy of Tethers Unlimited

Tethers Unlimited added in its recycler proposal that its system will also be useful for 3D printers on Earth.

“Several small companies have advertised bench-top extruder machines for making filament, some even being designed to recycle scraps, but all of those we are aware of are emulations of the traditional industrial process and are not sufficiently reliable for the average user,” Tethers Unlimited wrote. “The Positrusion process would not be suited for high through-put industrial purposes, but it will be marketable to a large portion of the growing population of household and workplace 3d printer users to enable individuals to efficiently practice a self-sustaining 3D printer material cycle.”

These are both very early stage grants, but if NASA is putting a 3D printer on the ISS, it makes as much sense to send a recycler. Just as spare parts can become sparse and difficult to get to the station, the filament for an extruder can run out. And if space missions begin venturing farther and farther from Earth, it will become increasingly important to stretch supplies as far as they can go.