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Refabricator, a recycling machine for space
The International Space Station now has a hybrid machine that combines a recycling system and a 3D printer capable of turning waste into plastic filaments to make new objects in space. Again and again.
In November 2018, the cargo ship Cygnus delivered a gift from NASA to the astronauts working on the International Space Station (ISS) - the scientific laboratory located in low Earth orbit. It was a recycling system called "Refabricator" that transforms plastic waste into 3D printing materials in a gravity-free environment.
3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies have many applications in the conquest of space, be it upstream of a space mission (making satellite parts, for example), aboard a spaceship or even on a planet (constructing habitation spaces on Mars).
It’s not easy, in fact, to get all the parts that astronauts might need during a long-term exploration mission into a space vehicle. And sending new components via refueling shuttles is very expensive and sometimes takes several months.
Which is one of the reasons why NASA signed a research and innovation agreement in 2015 with the American aerospace company Tethers Unlimited, marking the beginning of the Refabricator project to “implement a truly sustainable, in-space manufacturing ecosystem” - meaning a machine that reuses plastic parts and waste to make new objects.
Recycling to infinity, from space to Earth
Tested aboard the ISS, the Refabricator is able to convert plastic waste into plastic raw materials compatible with NASA’s 3D printing system (the first 3D printed part was produced in space in November 2014).
The device could be used to create medical equipment, spare parts and other objects while simultaneously helping astronauts to get rid of bulky waste. It could even reduce the number of refueling missions required and therefore the cost of space exploration missions - as well as making astronauts more self-sufficient.
From a circular economy point of view, the recycling technologies developed for space exploration could have applications here on Earth. Refabricator incorporates several innovations.
“Recyclers on Earth grind plastic pellets to create their products. But that grinding creates material sheer which prevents you from reusing that plastic again – it’s no longer strong enough.
For this technology demonstration, the company Tethers Unlimited developed a novel recycling process that doesn't require grinding – and that allows us to recycle the plastic multiple times.”
The Refabricator can even recycle plastic items not normally associated with Earthbound 3D printers. For instance, almost all of the materials that are delivered to the station are protected by foam or plastic bags that can be loaded into the Refabricator to deliver items such as a plastic syringe, eating utensils, or custom made wrenches.