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Space manufacturing: Scientists looking toward the stars to create stronger materials


Space might be dangerous, but it also possesses unique qualities that make it perfect for producing certain materials and products. According to a Space.com article, experts and researchers believe stronger materials, bigger and purer crystals, and even new organs can be developed and manufactured in space.

Microgravity permits the unhindered growth, even mixing, and cementing of materials. The vacuum also makes it easy to create impurity-free products. When combined with the increasing ease and affordability of space travel, these advantages make in-space manufacturing very attractive.

For example, microgravity allows things to grow evenly in all directions. It can also prevent contamination from touching the walls of an enclosure. These conditions are perfect for materials used in miniaturized electronics. Producing the materials in microgravity reduces the risk of flaws at the molecular and atomic levels.

Products must be light and valuable enough to pay for the costs of shipping raw materials to space and sending the finished product to Earth. For example, ZBLAN fiber-optic cables are very light and very expensive; building them in microgravity, where they are less prone to developing faults, could be profitable. (Related: Lessons learned using robotic arm in space now being applied to the hospital surgery room.)

Metallic glasses and large crystals can only be made in microgravity

Another potentially profitable material for in-space manufacturing is gallium nitride. It can only be solidified in small amounts because its component molecules up are prone to binding incorrectly.

Obviously, microgravity does not have the gravity that causes hotter and less-dense fluids to rise and move. It can also keep molten gallium nitride from touching the sides of its container, which would contaminate the still-forming product.

The International Space Station already has a device that can melt and solidify materials in space. The Electrostatic Levitation Furnace uses electrodes to levitate the materials it is forming.

Microgravity is also free from convection. In space, heavier materials will not sink into a solution. Crystals can thus grow much larger in space.

The 3D structure of a larger crystal is much easier to study. Such microgravity-grown crystals are also purer and have higher quality.

The same applies to metals. Certain alloys can only be formed in low-gravity environments that allow homogeneous blending. Microgravity also slows down crystallization. Metals and other substances can, therefore, be made into stronger and corrosion-resistant metallic glasses that can be molded at lower temperatures.

These alloys and metallic glasses could one day be used to make parts for spacecraft and other terrestrial needs.

Microgravity could allow quicker growth of organs for emergency transplants

The benefits of space production are not limited to inorganic objects. They also apply to organic objects such as the organs of living creatures. On Earth, gravity constrains the growth of cells within their containers. But in space, cells are able to float in microgravity, allowing them to form much larger networks.

Space agencies and private companies are working on ways to grow tissues in microgravity conditions. It might soon be possible to grow human hearts, kidneys, livers, and muscles in microgravity; these quickly-grown organs can then be transplanted into medical patients.

In-space manufacturing is also getting a big boost from 3D printing technology. Normally, equipment and tools are built in Earth’s gravity. They must also be able to withstand the powerful gee-forces imparted by a rocket launch.

However, 3D printers can be launched into space. Once there, they can print the necessary tools and equipment that will never feel the grip of gravity.

In-space manufacturing companies predict that space-borne 3D printers will one day print large structures in space. The resources for these structures would not need to come from Earth; near-Earth asteroids can be mined for raw materials.

Find out about other industries that are launching into space at Space.news.

Sources include:

Space.com

NCBI.NLM.NIH.gov

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