ESA has bright idea to 3D print bricks from moon dust using the sun

5 May 2017

The solar furnace that produced the bricks. Image: DLR

When humans build their first settlement on the moon, the best material to use might be bricks made from moon dust baked by the sun’s heat.

The space race is back on and, with it, the first attempts by humans to build a settlement on the moon, perhaps as a launch pad for future missions to Mars.

Last month, the Chinese National Space Administration and the European Space Agency (ESA) revealed they were to cooperate on building and operating a base on the moon.

One potential stumbling block to this plan is the monumental cost of shipping tonnes of building materials and structures to the moon. Another is trying to power manufacturing facilities.

A new solution hinges on using what’s already there: the surrounding material of the moon’s surface and the heat from the sun.

According to the ESA, the solar furnace being developed at the DLR German Aerospace Centre facility in Cologne consists of a 3D printer table and 147 curved mirrors. It bakes layers of moon dust 0.1mm at a time to form bricks.

At a temperature of 1,000 degrees Celsius, a brick measuring 20cm by 10cm by 3 cm – with the strength of gypsum – can be produced in approximately five hours.

3D printed brick

The 3D printed brick. Image: ESA–G. Porter, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Now to build in lunar conditions

So far, testing has not used actual moon dust – given its obvious scarcity here on Earth – but commercially available, simulated lunar soil derived from terrestrial volcanic material.

The team that designed the process has said it remains a proof of concept at this stage. Analysis has shown that some bricks are warping at the edges during testing, indicating that they cool faster than the brick’s centre.

“We’re looking how to manage this effect, perhaps by occasionally accelerating the printing speed so that less heat accumulates within the brick,” said project lead Advenit Makaya.

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

The next step is to use the bricks in the RegoLight project, which will be able to build and test the bricks in a lunar environment with high temperatures and a vacuum.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic