Plastic recycling has evolved in both scope and adoption levels in recent years. The ability to recycle PET and HDPE containers used for milk and other beverages into food-grade materials has allowed the development of ‘closed loop’ recycling. This is where plastic regrinds are re-purposed in the same place as the recycling waste is collected.
And now, plastic recycling is going into space and could offer an extra degree of self-sufficiency to astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS) when combined with 3D printing technologies.
As things currently stand, NASA has to spend huge sums of money to send cargo rockets to the space station every few months. Of course, some of this cargo cannot be avoided, such as foodstuffs. In the case of equipment, however, costs could be drastically reduced if NASA only needed to send the basic materials for 3D printing, with the equipment for missions being 3D printed on-board the ISS.
This, in turn, however, carries with it two additional issues: the need to send up plastic filament for the printer, and the huge amounts of plastic waste that result. But given that we already recycle plastic on Earth, a process which has demonstrated the potential to save money and reduce waste, what if it were possible to recycle plastic on-board the ISS as well, thus creating a closed loop plastic recycling system where plastic could constantly be recycled, reprinted and reused?
NASA and 3D printing
3D printing has been all the rage in the media for some time. The idea of being able to design and ‘print’ plastic objects from our homes has the capacity to radically shake up the entire market for consumer goods. The cost of the technology has thus far hindered widespread consumer adoption of 3D printing. This hasn’t stopped NASA, however.
3D plastic printing works by extruding molten plastic from a printer head to build an object, layer upon horizontal layer. Therefore, the first hurdle to be crossed was to design a 3D printer that could work in zero-gravity. Made In Space achieved this back in 2014, testing its 3D printer on board the ISS.
Now, another American firm has developed an integrated 3D printing-recycling system which it too plans to test on-board the ISS in the near future. The system consists of two parts, a Recycler and Refabricator. The Recycler will process all plastic waste left by the astronauts. This waste includes packaging materials, food containers and even old 3D printed parts themselves.
Next stop – Mars?
These will be turned into a filament that can be used in the Refabricator, a zero-gravity 3D printer, which will be able to print new satellite components, replacement parts and numerous tools for the astronauts to use in their research. If successful, this system would create a high degree of self-sufficiency on-board the space station, saving NASA substantial sums of money in the process.
The system will also allow NASA to carry out experiments on the technicalities of a manned flight to Mars, which would take around 500 days with little room for resupply missions. The devices are due to be tested onboard the space station in early 2017.