A revolutionary 3D printing process for use in future space missions is in development by West Virginia University engineers to provide dexterous assistance to astronauts and for various space station servicing activities.
Thanks to funding from NASA’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, the researchers will be using a new 3D printing process to develop soft actuators – a device that can change shape or size in response to pressure, heat, light or electricity and is an integral component of soft robotic systems – with embedded sensing capabilities.
Principal Investigator and Associate Professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the Statler College, Kostas Sierros, explained that the project will combine ink extrusion and micro-reactor technologies together, a process that has not been previously demonstrated.
“Space is a largely unknown environment that represents hard constrained design and manufacturing challenges,” Sierros said. “We propose to remove such hard design constraints and manufacturing challenges by developing smart, sensing building blocks that are 3D printed.”
The 3D printer will print soft robotics, which is a subfield of robotics that deals with constructing robots from highly flexible materials that allows for conformability and adaptability to accomplish tasks. Soft robotics use non-traditional materials that have not seen largely in typical robots that use more rigid materials.
Extrusion enables 3D printing of viscous inks which are deposited on digitally pre-defined volumes at high pressure through an exchangeable nozzle. Micro-reactor technology performs chemical reaction to produce functional nanomaterials on-the-fly.
“This project addresses critical issues within 3D printing and sensor technologies, so it helps the University in multiple ways,” Sierros said. “We are developing new technology in this area that will push the University into groundbreaking research. It will enhance the University’s research infrastructure in the state.”
The $750,000 grant will be used to purchase parts, software, materials and chemicals that are necessary to carry out the development and research of the project, as well as fund graduate students who will work alongside Sierros, Edward Sabolsky, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor, and Majid Jaridi, an industrial and management systems engineering professor.
Engineers at WVU will be working alongside a research group from Oregon State University and NASA Langley and Marshall Space Flight Center. The three-year project began in October.
Contact: Paige Nesbit
Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4135, Paige Nesbit
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