NASA Selects 3D Plastics Recycling Projects for SBIR Awards

NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore installs a 3-D Printer in the Microgravity Science Glovebox on the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA-TV)
NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore installs a 3-D Printer in the Microgravity Science Glovebox on the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA-TV)

NASA has agreed to continue funding the development of two projects aimed at turning plastic packaging waste into feed stock for 3-D printers aboard the International Space Station.

The space agency selected proposals from Tethers Unlimited of Bothell, Wash., and Cornerstone Research Group of
Dayton, Ohio, for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II grants. Both companies earlier received SBIR Phase I funding.

Tethers Unlimited’s project is called CRISSP, which stands for Customizable Recyclable International Space Station Packaging. The goal is to develop new packaging material for launches composed of plastics that can be reused on orbit.

“The primary results of the Phase II effort will be a flight-ready process for packaging supplies and components for launch to ISS with materials that are readily recyclable on-orbit,” according to the project’s technical abstract.

Cornerstone Research Group’s project uses reversible thermoset (RVT) polymers “that can be combined with existing waste packaging during a reclamation process to produce 3-D printer filament.”

The company also is working on “RVT-based replacement packaging material that can be directly reclaimed into 3-D printer filament,” according to the project’s technical abstract.

Summaries of both projects follow.

NASA SBIR Phase II Award

Tethers Unlimited, Inc.
Bothell, WA

Proposal Title: CRISSP – Customizable Recyclable International Space Station Packaging

Subtopic Title: Recycling/Reclamation of 3-D Printer Plastic Including Transformation of Launch Package Solutions into 3-D Printed Parts

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Rachel Muhlbauer

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

Technical Abstract

The CRISSP Phase II effort will mature to TRL-6 recyclable launch packaging materials to enable sustainable in-space manufacturing on the ISS and future manned deep space missions.

Our Phase I effort began by testing the recycling of current launch packaging materials, identifying several that are possible to recycle. We then prototyped concepts for sealable bags made with readily recyclable A.M. materials, including Ultem thermoplastic. We next developed a process for 3D printing customized containers having integral vibration-damping features, and performed testing that revealed this CRISSP packaging can provide vibration protection equivalent to or better than current foam packaging materials.

To fabricate these containers, we developed novel 3D printer infills which can controllably provide a wide range of compression and flexing directions depending on the print parameters. For the highest performing infills, energy attenuation was up to two orders of magnitude better than that of a volumetrically equivalent amount of foam.

We then demonstrated recycling of these test samples into 3D printer filament. The Phase II effort will mature the CRISSP technologies to flight-ready status by performing thorough materials-degradation studies to characterize the performance of the materials as a function of number of recycling iterations, maturing and optimizing our infill generation software to enable highly-automated design of customized CRISSP containers optimized for a given payload  vibration sensitivities, prototyping 3D printed packaging for a test-case vibration-sensitive payload, and then performing extensive environmental qualification testing to mature the technology to TRL-6 or better.

The primary results of the Phase II effort will be a flight-ready process for packaging supplies and components for launch to ISS with materials that are readily recyclable on-orbit.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

The CRISSP technology suite has multiple NASA applications which will enhance capabilities on the ISS and other long duration missions. The 3D printed packaging architecture can better attenuate launch vibrations than the foam materials already used, its frequency attenuation can be tuned for certain payloads, and it could better protect sensitive experiments from the overall launch vibration as well as from any specific harmful frequencies. After launch, the packaging can be recycled on-board to create 3D printer filament to enable sustainable in-space manufacturing of tools and satellite components.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

The underlying technologies used in the CRISSP system have application outside the agency with other non-NASA space customers who also launch payloads into space. We will also reach out to DoD customers, such as the Navy, who are similarly limited to resupply during submarine missions. With the increasing number of 3D printer users as well as the increase in the shipping of goods to residential addresses, there is a lot of space for the CRISSP technology suite to revolutionize the packaging industry. In addition, the design and concept of CRISSP as it pertains to frequency attenuation is very well suited to frequency dampeners, opening a different use case for commercialization.

NASA SBIR Phase II Award

Cornerstone Research Group
Dayton, Ohio

Proposal Title: Reversible Copolymer Materials for FDM 3-D Printing of Non-Standard Plastics

Subtopic Title: Recycling/Reclamation of 3-D Printer Plastic Including Transformation of Launch Package Solutions into 3-D Printed Parts

Principal Investigator/Project Manager
Brian Henslee

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) at beginning and end of contract:
Begin: 3
End: 5

Technical Abstract

Cornerstone Research Group Inc. (CRG) proposes to continue efforts from the 2015 NASA SBIR Phase I topic H14.03 “Reversible Copolymer Materials for FDM 3D Printing of Non-Standard Plastics.” CRG offers NASA the ability to reprocess space mission waste packaging plastics as an In-Situ resource for in space manufacturing via Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) type 3-D printing of replacement tools, parts, and devices.

This innovation is enabling for space exploration, the application of CRG’s reversible thermoset (RVT) polymers combined with a plastic recycling, blending, and extrusion process will allow current and future packaging materials to be processed into a copolymer blend filament suited to FDM 3-D printing system.

This approach offers two implementation routes including;

  1. An RVT additive that can be combined with existing waste packaging during a reclamation process to produce 3-D printer filament and
  2. A RVT based replacement packaging material that can be directly reclaimed into 3-D printer filament.

The material properties of 3-D printer filament from the RVT-based reclamation process can be tuned for mechanical performance (stiffness, flexibility) by adjusting the blend ratios of reclaimed waste packaging: RVT. This will provide NASA with a means to generate 3-D printer feedstocks with varying mechanical performance from on-hand packaging plastics without the need for separate 3-D printer material payloads.

CRG has already demonstrated the efficacy of RVT additive in reclamation of NASA’s packaging materials in Phase I by producing a co-polymer blend of RVT with NASA packaging, producing a FDM printer filament with the reclaimed packaging, and successfully 3-D printing the resulting reclaimed packaging material.

CRG’s proposed approach to further develop thermally-reversible polymer materials to reclaim NASA’s packaging will provide a material and processing technology readiness level (TRL) of 5 at the conclusion of the Phase II effort.

Potential NASA Commercial Applications

Supporting NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) and the MSFC, this project’s technologies directly address requirements for solutions to recycling on-board plastics materials into 3-D printable formats for low-earth orbit and space flight additive manufacturing systems. This project’s technologies offer a means to take on-board non-critical plastics, such as packaging materials, and reclaim these objects for 3-D printing of needed custom parts without requiring an additional mission payload of 3-D printing feedstock.

Potential Non-NASA Commercial Applications

Department of Defense systems would derive benefits from this technology, including rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing of complex, low-run number, and advanced design parts. Prime defense contractors could find use of an enabling technology allowing 3-D printing of new and exotic polymeric materials or polymeric composites previously thought incompatible to FDM-type processing. Human systems focused solutions would have the ability to additively manufacture custom components for personnel equipment, such as softer elastomeric materials for integral user-custom equipment.

This technology’s attributes for improving the compatibility of polymers to 3-D printing systems would yield a high potential for private sector commercialization for 3-D printer manufactures, significantly increasing the materials properties available in the feedstock. Such companies could dramatically expand the thermoplastic raw materials available to consumers, and potentially be able to produce materials with custom mechanical performance on-demand.