NASA’s ‘Refabricator’ lets astronauts recycle 3D-printed tools to make new ones

Christmas has come and gone, but that hasn’t stopped the International Space Station from gifting itself a pretty awesome new gadget to usher in 2019 in style. Called the Refabricator, it’s an integrated recycler and 3D printer that was just installed onboard the ISS. It is designed to turn recyclable plastics into 3D printable material.

“The Refabricator is key in demonstrating a sustainable model to fabricate, recycle, and reuse parts and waste materials on extended space exploration missions,” said Niki Werkheiser, manager of in-space manufacturing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The Refabricator was created by Tethers Unlimited, a private aerospace company located near Seattle. The machine’s development was funded by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

“The Refabricator is an experimental payload for the International Space Station, intended to demonstrate the ability to recycle unneeded plastic items and create new parts or tools using the recycled material,” Rob Hoyt, CEO of Tethers Unlimited, told Digital Trends. “The payload, which is about the size of a mini-fridge you might find in a college dorm room, integrates a novel plastic recycling technology called ‘Positrusion’ with a 3D printer.”

The Positrusion system melts the plastic parts and then extrudes this material into high-quality 3D printer filament. This is then wound up onto a spool, which is fed into a fused-filament fabrication 3D printer to make new parts.

While such a tool could one day be crucial for long-haul space missions, on the ISS it will be used mainly for experimentation — to study how the plastic material changes with multiple recycling and 3D printing cycles in space. In other words, it will test how many times astronauts can recycle plastic parts before the polymers change too much to be useful.

“Right now, we are very focused on making the Refabricator experiment on the ISS a success,” Hoyt said. “But once that is done, we intend to pursue development of a Refabricator system that is designed for industrial and perhaps consumer use. We believe the technology could help businesses minimize their plastic waste streams and support sustainable manufacturing practices here on Earth.”

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