Printing Bricks From Moon Dust Using Solar Heat

Brick 3D printed from moondust using focused sunlight. (Credit: ESA–G. Porter)

COLOGNE, Germany (ESA PR) — Bricks have been 3D printed out of simulated moondust using concentrated sunlight – proving in principle that future lunar colonists could one day use the same approach to build settlements on the Moon.

“We took simulated lunar material and cooked it in a solar furnace,” explains materials engineer Advenit Makaya, overseeing the project for ESA.

“This was done on a 3D printer table, to bake successive 0.1 mm layers of moondust at 1000°C. We can complete a 20 x 10 x 3 cm brick for building in around five hours.

As raw material, the test used commercially available simulated lunar soil based on terrestrial volcanic material, processed to mimic the composition and grain sizes of genuine moondust.

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The solar furnace at the DLR German Aerospace Center facility in Cologne has two working setups. As a baseline, 147 curved mirrors focus sunlight into a high-temperature beam to melt the soil grains together. But the weather in northern Europe does not always cooperate, so the Sun is sometimes simulated by an array of xenon lamps more typically found in cinema projectors.

The resulting bricks have the equivalent strength of gypsum, and are set to undergo detailed mechanical testing.

Solar furnace (Credit: DLR)

Some bricks show some warping at the edges, Advenit adds, because their edges cool faster than the centre:  “We’re looking how to manage this effect, perhaps by occasionally accelerating the printing speed so that less heat accumulates within the brick.

“But for now this project is a proof of concept, showing that such a lunar construction method is indeed feasible.”

Side view of brick. (Credit: ESA–G. Porter)

Following this ESA General Support Technology Programme study, the follow-up RegoLight project is being backed through the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme.

Advenit adds: “Our demonstration took place in standard atmospheric conditions, but RegoLight will probe the printing of bricks in representative lunar conditions: a vacuum and high-temperature extremes.”

Multi-dome base being constructed. (Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners)

ESA’s effort follows a previous lunar 3D printing project, but that approach required a binding salt. The new technique calls for only the 3D printer plus solar concentrator to be conveyed to the Moon.

This continuing research is part of a range of studies being undertaken by ESA investigating techniques to use in-situ lunar resources for manufacturing infrastructure and hardware.

Tommaso Ghidini, heading ESA’s Materials and Processes, notes, “For a mission like building a base on the Moon surface, in-situ resource utilisation will certainly be one of the most important enabling technologies. This result offers the opportunity of a complete sustainable approach.

“Back on Earth, 3D printing of civil structures using solar power and in-situ resources could support rapid construction of post-disaster emergency shelters, removing long, costly and often inefficient supply chains.”

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  • Kapitalist

    Why do they use such elaborate mirrors, instead of just metal foil?
    The brick doesn’t look very impressive. When in a methane atmosphere, Lunar regolith forms solid iron when exposed to concentrated sunlight. Laurant Sibille mentions it in passing in his lecture here, to me it sounds like the reason for going to the Moon:
    https://sservi.nasa.gov/in-situ-resource-utilization-isru-a-graduate-seminar/

    Isn’t that much more useful than this brittle “brick”?

  • JamesG

    To form pig iron you also have to sort and sift out the ferrous particles. This just sinter bulk regolith. Most likely use won’t be for making bricks but for fusing a hard(er) crust over regolith buried pressure structures and for paving paths and landing pads.

  • So, a building of 10x10x3 meters with bricks on all sides would require 16,000 bricks. 5 hrs for a half-height brick = 10 hrs for a full height brick. So 160,000 hrs to bake all of the bricks. At an average of 12 hrs of sunlight per Earth day it would take 36.5 years to bake that many bricks for one room.

  • Kapitalist

    Yeah, and that would be a good start. These “3D printed” bricks don’t look at all more solid than a sintered ingot of iron. We should think of the Moon as a metal lump to be liberated of its oxygen by the free Solar energy.

  • Kapitalist

    No no no! You’re not allowed to use numbers when judging ESA priorities, that’s unfair. And please ignore the big hole in the middle of the brick in the picture.

    I thought that additive manufacturing meant total control of the material at a micrometer scale. Still, these bricks look like cow dung.

  • JamesG

    But if you have nine pregnant women working on it, they can make all of the bricks (and a baby!) in only 1 month.

  • LOL! When it comes to making these bricks, we will not be deturd:
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=UWuc18xISwI&t=4m48s

  • ThomasLMatula

    I wonder how their technology compares to the work PISCES has been doing on making bricks from lunar regoltih. At the New World 2016 Conference the researchers from PISCES showed a video on how they used the bricks to make a simulated lunar landing/launch pad.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I’ll bet this is where robotic colonization comes into play. Where you’d make up for the slow production of bricks with multiple (mobile) robots working for years before the humans come. Even if we start going back to the Moon now, there will still be places we want to go that will have to wait perhaps on the order of 100 years before being visited/settled by humans. We’ve already seen a 50 year gap in Lunar exploration and development. As we reach out and begin to develop new worlds we’ll probably have to start thinking in such long terms.

  • AdmBenson

    I have a coffee percolator that can make a similar brick in 10 minutes.

  • redneck

    Equivalent strength of gypsum, great a brick as strong as drywall.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    Direct solar energy? Nah!! Use powerful electric currents from silicon solar panels of well over 10, maybe closer to 50 Amps. At high voltage, high amperage, electric current passing through high-resistance lunar dust will cause it to experience terrific incandescent heating that could quickly fuse the grains together. How about a 100 bricks per hour?

  • OldCodger

    Couple of interesting articles on this in the JBIS last year

  • publiusr
  • publiusr

    With Webb People are moving away from the idea of monolithic reflecting surfaces. That’s a mistake if you ask me. It’s why I want rocket growth. Keep everything as simple as possible–don’t unfold anything a dozen different ways–just make the damn rocket bigger.

  • Kapitalist

    Unfolding structures in space works really well. The Jupiter probe Galileo’s main antenna is the worst failure, and that was decades ago. Unfolding looks really risky, but that’s because they are visual. That stuff can be very well tested on the ground.

    But I do think that larger launchers are coming, SpaceX and Blue Origin are seriously developing them. For economic reasons. Larger launchers should be cheaper per ton. And wider fairings means larger or cheaper and safer telescope mirrors. I think we could see formation flying interferometric telescopes soon, that individually do not need to be very big to get a great resolution.

  • ReSpaceAge