Tethers Unlimited Selected for NASA SBIR II Award for ISS Recycling System

Tethers_Unlimited_LogoNASA has selected Tethers Unlimited of Bothell, Wash., for negotiations on a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II contract to continue development of a system that will recycle scrap and waste plastics into filament for 3D printers in space.

“Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (TUI) has developed a novel “Positrusion” method for processing plastic pieces into filament. The Phase I effort successfully demonstrated Positrusion recycling of 3D-printed scrap ABS and Ultem materials back into filament,” according to the company’s technical abstract. “The Phase II effort will deliver a complete ISS recycler payload system configured as an EXPRESS locker payload, flight qualified and at TRL-6.

“Positrusion supports NASA’s current efforts aboard the ISS as well as in future deep space missions by providing a facility for recycling scrap plastic parts to form high quality 3D printer-ready feedstock to enable on-orbit manufacture of tools, containers, radiation shielding, and mechanical parts,” the abstract states.

SBIR Phase II contracts are valued at up to $750,000 and last no more than two years. Phase III, or the commercialization of an innovation, may occur after successful completion of Phase II.

A summary of the proposal is below.

Tethers Unlimited, Inc.
Bothell, WA

Positrusion Filament Recycling System for ISS
Subtopic Title: Recycling/Reclamation of 3D Printer Plastic for Reuse

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Jesse I Cushing

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 4
End: 6

Technical Abstract

The Positrusion ISS Recycler enables recycling of scrap and waste plastics into high-quality filament for 3D printers to enable sustainable in-situ manufacturing on the ISS and future deep-space manned missions. In order to minimize astronaut time required for recycling, mitigate safety risks, and improve the quality of product relative to conventional filament extrusion methods, Tethers Unlimited, Inc. (TUI) has developed a novel “Positrusion” method for processing plastic pieces into filament. The Phase I effort successfully demonstrated Positrusion recycling of 3D-printed scrap ABS and Ultem materials back into filament, establishing the technology at TRL-4. Moreover, testing demonstrated that Positrusion achieves order-of-magnitude improvement in filament dimensional quality compared to commercially-available filament, which not only will improve the performance and reliability of ISS 3D printers but also make Positrusion competitive in terrestrial commercial applications, such as recycling plastic wastes in the home and office into useful 3D printer feedstock. The Phase II effort will deliver a complete ISS recycler payload system configured as an EXPRESS locker payload, flight qualified and at TRL-6. The Positrusion payload will provide recycling services aboard the ISS with operations that are as simple, safe, and reliable as a microwave oven, enabling astronauts to place scraps in the machine, push a button, and then move on to other duties while the recycler automatically processes the part into spooled filament.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

Positrusion supports NASA’s current efforts aboard the ISS as well as in future deep space missions by providing a facility for recycling scrap plastic parts to form high quality 3D printer-ready feedstock to enable on-orbit manufacture of tools, containers, radiation shielding, and mechanical parts. The installation of this facility will provide launch savings by reducing the launched mass required to restock ISS printers, as well as optimizing the amount of raw material required for deep space missions that utilize NASA’s 3D printing. The Positrusion system will also enable recycling of packaging materials and other plastic parts into useful filament, reducing the waste mass that must be deorbited by cargo vehicles. Positrusion process also produces superior filament quality than conventional commercial processes, making it ideally suited to supply any NASA needs for terrestrially produced filament. It is also very efficient for small-batch filament production, reducing the costs and schedule for development and qualification of new filament materials.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Positrusion’s produces filament of superior quality compared to conventional commercial processes, is well suited to small-batch filament production with zero wasted material, and uses a simple architecture that is more appropriate for operation by regular 3D-printer users. These attributes make it well suited for part recycling applications in consumer and pro-sumer 3D-printer markets TUI plans to target the aerospace, defense, automotive, consumer, and R&D markets for commercialization of the Positrusion plastics recycling technology.

Technology Taxonomy Mapping

  • In Situ Manufacturing
  • Polymers
  • Processing Methods