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Plastic recycler for 3-D printing
TUI/Firmamentum’s Positrusion device turns 3-D-printed items back into plastic filament. The recycler would be paired with a 3-D printer in Firmamentum’s Refabricator. (Credit: Tethers Unlimited)

Firmamentum, a division of Tethers Unlimited Inc. in Bothell, Wash., says it has won $750,000 in NASA funding to build a combination 3-D printer and plastic recycler for the International Space Station.

The device, known as the Refabricator, is due to be delivered to NASA next year, said Rob Hoyt, president of TUI/Firmamentum.

“This is an experiment to see how many times you can recycle plastic in the microgravity environment before the polymers break down,” Hoyt told GeekWire today at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2016 conference in Seattle.

Firmamentum’s plastic-recycling process, known as Positrusion, was the focus of earlier experiments funded by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program, or SBIR. Hoyt said the most recent award was made last Friday, with backing from SBIR as well as the In-Space Manufacturing project at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

Another company, California-based Made In Space, already has built a couple of 3-D printers that went into use on the space station. The 3-D printers melt down plastic filament and deposit tiny squirts of the stuff in a computer-controlled pattern to produce tools and other objects.

The Refabricator would advance the state of the art by combining a 3-D printer with a Positrusion system that can turn 3-D-printed items back into plastic filament. Such a system would come in handy during a human mission to Mars, said Jesse Cushing, principal investigator for the Refabricator project.

“This capability will enable the astronauts to use material that would otherwise be waste to maintain their spacecraft and adapt to unforeseen challenges on the Martian surface,” Cushing said in a news release posted to Facebook. “For example, if Mark Watney had a Refabricator, he could have easily recycled his food trays and other plastic waste into the tools and parts he needed to survive, and ‘The Martian’ would have been much less of a nail-biter.”

Hoyt said Firmamentum’s recycler has put plastic feedstock through three or four manufacturing cycles during ground-based experiments. The next step is to see how the device, which is about as big as two suitcases stacked on top of each other, works in zero-G.

There are plenty of plastic recycling devices on the market already, but Hoyt said Firmamentum’s device is designed to produce filament to standard specifications without the “constant fiddling” which is typically required (and which the astronauts have no time for). It’s also designed to minimize chemical degradation when the plastic is repeatedly melted and extruded.

“We had to deconstruct the filament manufacturing process, and we ended up coming up with a different way of doing it,” Hoyt said.

He said the Refabricator hasn’t yet been scheduled for delivery to the space station. The timing will be determined after NASA checks out the device and gives it a thumbs-up. But Hoyt said the prototype could blaze a trail for new types of closed-cycle 3-D printing systems – in space and on Earth.

“I am very hopeful that it has a significant terrestrial market,” he said.

Tethers Unlimited Inc. was founded in 1994 by Hoyt and the late science-fiction author Robert L. Forward. Its technology portfolio includes advanced space propulsion systems and programmable radios for small satellites as well as additive manufacturing methods.

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