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NASA buys $750K gadget to recycle 3D-printed plastic on the space station

NASA is paying big bucks to experiment with plastics recycling on the International Space Station. The space agency recently inked a deal with Firmamentum, a division of Tethers Unlimited, that is worth a whopping $750,000. What is this magical device that NASA is paying three-quarters or a million for? A combo 3D printer and plastics recycler, reports GeekWire.

Aptly named the Refabricator, the device can 3D print an object and then recycle that plastic for another round of printing. The system uses a recycling process known as Positrusion, which was developed for NASA as part of a previously funded project. The Refabricator machine is designed for use on the ISS and is as easy to use as a microwave, claims Tethers Unlimited. Users simply place a discarded 3D-printed object or other compatible scrap plastic into the machine, press the button, and wait for the machine to work its Positrusion magic. The end product is a filament that can be fed into the companion 3D printer.

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NASA will use the Refabricator to expand its 3D-printing capabilities on the ISS. The agency already is experimenting with 3D printing in space, having installed several 3D printers on the space station earlier this year. The Refabricator will take on a different role, serving as an experimental unit to test the feasibility of recycling plastics in space.

“This is an experiment to see how many times you can recycle plastic in the microgravity environment before the polymers break down,” said Tethers Unlimited’s CEO Rob Hoyt to GeekWire during the recent NewSpace 2016 conference in Seattle, Washington.

Firmamentum plans to deliver the first Refabricator units to NASA in 2017. Money for the development of the Refabricator is being provided by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program and NASA’s In-Space Manufacturing project based out of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.