Zero-G Space-Based Factories May be The Future of Our World

Mission: Manufacturing

SpaceX has been getting a lot of attention since its historic launch of recycled rockets. The cost of getting people and technology into space has never been cheaper. This is opening up an entirely new world of possibilities for companies across a variety of different fields. One surprising development coming out of this news is an increased interest in manufacturing in space.

There are a lot of benefits of moving operations to space that can significantly benefit certain types of manufacturing. Space offers the closest physical approximation to a vacuum (something that is impossible on Earth), solar power only limited by what’s collecting it, extreme temperatures, and perhaps most importantly, microgravity. These factors can expand the capability of what manufacturers could accomplish on Earth. Companies are already vying to be among the first to be granted the opportunity to create in space, with exciting prospects across a variety of fields — especially in medicine.

The makers of a revolutionary stem cell printer, nScrypt, are working with two other companies, Bioficial Organs, and Techshot to begin printing real hearts from patients’ stem cells on the International Space Station (ISS) by 2019.

3D printing hearts in this way is not entirely possible on Earth. Researchers have to devise a scaffolding onto which the material can be printed, but it then must dissolve or be removed without damaging the printed structure. However, it is possible to print without a scaffold in space. “If we try to do it on Earth, it would look pretty for about a second and then just kind of melt all over the table,” says Eugene Boland, chief scientist at Techshot. “It would look like you just poured a Jell-O mold and then tried to immediately serve it—it would glob on your plate into this gelatinous mess.”

Space Organs

As you may have seen, most 3D printing needs to be done in layers. The object is built from the ground up one (effectively) 2-dimensional layer at a time. In space, the lack of gravity allows objects to actually print in 3D. Not only that, but the speed of the printing could be up to 100 times faster. For example, the gravity aboard the ISS will allow the printed structure to retain its shape as stem cells work to grow the tissue of a transplantable heart. The hearts could be ready in as little as 45 days. With the average median wait time of a heart transplant being four months in the United States, printing in space could save countless lives.

“People are getting tired of seeing Yoda figures being printed,” says nScrypt CEO Kenneth Church. “They’re saying ‘You promised me a heart. Where is it?’ And what I’m going to tell you is, ‘It’s in space.’”

Manufacturing in space isn’t limited to just saving lives either: more efficient fiber optics cables and solar panels are possible when they are made in space. The future of manufacturing is launching toward the stars, it is clear that even the sky is no longer the limit.

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A Scientist Is 3D Printing Blood Vessels for Sick Children

3D-Printed Medical Magic

Since it was introduced, 3D-printing technology has taken the world by storm. From disrupting the fashion industry to shaking up traditional home construction, 3D printing is fabricating a path for itself into modern society. Even the medical community is warming up to the new technology, as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a $211,000 Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant to an engineer at the University of Texas at Arlington to develop 3D-printable materials for developing new blood vessels for children.

Bioprinting: How 3D Printing is Changing Medicine
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Engineer Yi Hong, in partnership with Guohao Dai of Northeastern University, is setting his sights on fighting vascular defects in children. Children are more difficult to treat than adults because their bodies grow much quicker than any graft, meaning that these grafts are in need of constant replacement with multiple invasive surgeries.

In light of this problem, the bioengineering duo is attempting to create a range of 3D-printed materials that can be transformed into flexible, patient-specific blood vessels. These materials can then be mixed with human cells to create a fixture among biological blood vessels. Their elasticity could significantly improve the lives of children with vascular defects who currently need multiple invasive surgeries per graft. The printed blood vessels might also reduce the risk of thrombosis compared to that posed by traditional grafts.

Potential Impact

There are many types of vascular abnormalities that affect children. Some examples include aneurysms, which are sacs that can form on arteries in the brain; arteriovenous malformations, which are tangles of thin, easily ruptured vessels in the brain or spinal cord; and moyamoya disease, which blocks blood flow to the brain due to constricted arteries. These conditions can cause symptoms such as headaches, seizures, and even coma. With today’s therapies, children with vascular defects have it extremely rough — but if Hong’s project can accomplish its goals, things could get better.

Hong is confident in his project, and his history in raising $850,000 in funds from grants for his past projects further supports that claim. Hong’s method is ambitious, but his potential success will further solidify 3D printing’s role in medicine, encouraging other medical scientists to think outside the box while helping improve the quality of people’s lives.

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Researchers Use 3D Printing to Turn Microscopic Machines Into Powerful Workers

Nanomachines are tiny molecules – more than 10,000 lined up side by side would be narrower than the diameter of a human hair – that can move when they receive an external stimulus. They can already deliver medication within a body and serve as computer memories at the microscopic level. But as machines go, they haven’t been able to do much physical work – until now. The Conversation

My lab has used nano-sized building blocks to design a smart material that can perform work at a macroscopic scale, visible to the eye. A 3-D-printed lattice cube made out of polymer can lift 15 times its own weight – the equivalent of a human being lifting a car.

Nobel-Winning Roots are Rotaxanes

The design of our new material is based on Nobel Prize-winning research that turned mechanically interlocked molecules into work-performing machines at nanoscale – things like molecular elevators and nanocars.

Rotaxanes are one of the most widely investigated of these molecules. These dumbbell-shaped molecules are capable of converting input energy – in the forms of light, heat or altered pH – into molecular movements. That’s how these kinds of molecular structures got the nickname “nanomachines.”

For example, in a molecule called [2]rotaxane, composed of one ring on an axle, the ring can move along the axle to perform shuttling motions.


Left, a [2]rotaxane. The ring can shuttle along the axle. Right, representation of billions of [2]rotaxanes in solution. The motions of nano-rings counteract macroscopically. Chenfeng Ke, CC BY-ND

So far, harnessing the mechanical work of rotaxanes has been very challenging. When billions of these tiny machines are randomly oriented, the ring motions will cancel each other out, producing no useful work at a macroscale. In order to harness these molecular motions, scientists have to think about controlling their three-dimensional arrangement as well as synchronizing their motions.

Molecular Beads on a String

Our design is based on a well-investigated family of molecules called polyrotaxanes. These have multiple rings on a molecular axle. In our new material, the ring is a cyclic sugar and the axle is a polymer.

If we provide an external stimulus – like adding water – these rings randomly shuttling back and forth can instead stick to each other and form a tubular array. When that happens, it changes the stiffness of the molecule. It’s like when beads are threaded onto a string; many beads slid together make the string much stronger, like a rod.


Cartoon presentation of a polyrotaxane. The rings are changed from the shuttling state, left, to the stationary state, right. Chenfeng Ke, CC BY-ND

Our approach is to build a polymer system where billions of these molecules become stronger with added water. The strength of the whole architecture is increased and the structure can perform useful work.

In this way, we were able to get around the original problem of the random orientation of many nanomachines together. The addition of water locks them into a stationary state, therefore strengthening the whole 3-D architecture and allowing the united molecules to perform work together.

3-D Printing the Material

Our research is the first to add 3-D printability to mechanically interlocked molecules. It was integrating the 3-D printing technique that allowed us to transform the random shuttling motions of nano-sized rings into smart materials that perform work at macroscopic scale.

Getting the molecules all lined up in the right orientation is a way to amplify their motions. When we add water, the rings of the polyrotaxanes stick together via hydrogen bonds. The tubular arrays then stack together in a more ordered manner.

It’s much easier to get the molecules coordinated while they’re in this configuration as opposed to when the rings are all freely moving along the axle. We were able to successfully print lattice-like 3-D structures with the rings locked into position in this way. Now the molecules aren’t just randomly positioned within the material.

After 3-D-printing out the polymer, we used a photo-curing process – similar to the UV lamp that hardens nail polish at a salon – to cure it. We were left with a material that had good 3-D structural integrity and mechanical stability. Now it was ready to do some work.

Shape Changing Back and Forth

The three-dimensional geometry of the polymer is crucial for its shape changing. A hollow structure is easier to deform than a solid one. So we designed a lattice cube structure to maximize its shape-deformation ability and, in turn, its ability to do work as it switched back and forth from one state to the other.

The next important step was being able to control the work our polymer could do.

It turns out the complex 3-D architecture of these structures can be reversibly deformed and reformed. We were able to use a solvent to switch the threaded ring structure between random shuttling and stationary states at the molecular level. Exchanging the solvent let us easily repeat this shape-changing and recovery behavior many times.

This is how we converted chemical energy into mechanical work.

Just like moving beads to strengthen or weaken a string, this shape-changing is critical because it allows the amplification of molecular motion into macroscopic motion.

A 3-D printed lattice cube made of this smart material lifted a small coin 1.6 millimeters. The numbers may sound small for our day-to-day world, but this is a big step forward in the effort to get nanomachines doing macro work.

We hope this advance will enable scientists to further develop smart materials and devices. For example, by adding contraction and twisting to the rising motion, molecular machines could be used as soft robots performing complicated tasks similar to what a human hand can do.


Chenfeng Ke, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Dartmouth College

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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Researchers Have Transformed a Spinach Leaf Into Working Heart Tissue

Researchers from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) have transformed a spinach leaf into functional heart tissue. The team’s goal was to recreate human organ tissue down to the fragile vascular networks of blood vessels it can’t survive without. Scientists had previously attempted to 3D print intricate vascular networks without success. This breakthrough could mean that the delicate vascular systems of plants are the key.

To create the heart tissue, the scientists at WPI revealed the leaf’s cellulose frame by stripping away the plant cells. Then, they “seeded” the frame with human cells, causing tissue growth on the frame. Finally, they were able to pump microbeads and fluids through the veins to illustrate the functioning concept.

Repairing Damage, Creating Replacements

Although other scientists have been able to create small-scale artificial samples of human tissue, those samples required integration with existing blood vessels. The large-scale creation of working tissue infused with the vascular vessels critical to tissue health had proven impossible.

Researchers Have Transformed a Spinach Leaf Into Working Heart Tissue
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Because the technique could help people grow layers of stronger, healthier heart muscle, the team suggests that it could eventually be used to treat heart attack patients or others whose hearts have difficulty contracting. The researchers have also experimented with parsley, peanut hairy roots, and sweet wormwood as they believe the technique could make use of different kinds of plants to repair other types of tissues. For example, wood cellulose frames could one day help us repair human bones.

“We have a lot more work to do, but so far this is very promising,” Glenn Gaudette, a professor of biomedical engineering at WPI, told The Telegraph. “Adapting abundant plants that farmers have been cultivating for thousands of years for use in tissue engineering could solve a host of problems limiting the field.”

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We Could Create Robots That Can Feel, Thanks to New Sensor-Laden “Robotic Skin”

Modern consumers crave touchscreens, but the screens’ brittle fragility is their downfall. In order for sensors to cover anything larger — like a robot — the technology will need to be cost-effective and flexible. An MIT research team might have found the solution in 3-D printing, according to a study published recently in the journal Advanced Materials Technologies.

The team, led by graduate student Subramanian Sundaram, set out to build a device that would physically respond to mechanical stresses. They were inspired by the golden tortoise beetle, which changes from its typical golden hue and flushes reddish orange when prodded or otherwise mechanically stressed. The team designed the sensors with “pixel” that change color when the sensor is pressed to prove that it is feasible to blend processing circuitry and sensors in printable, flexible electronics.

“In nature, networks of sensors and interconnects are called sensorimotor pathways,” Sundaram said in an MIT press release. “We were trying to see whether we could replicate sensorimotor pathways inside a 3-D-printed object. So we considered the simplest organism we could find.”

Researchers have designed and built a device that responds to mechanical stresses by changing the color of a spot on its surface. Image: Subramanian Sundaram
Credit: Subramanian Sundaram

Printable electronics aren’t exactly new, but existing printable electronics take a plastic substrate and deposit flexible circuitry on it. The team working on this artificial “goldbug” actually printed the substrate itself. Choosing and customizing the substrate means fewer limitations in terms of what can be deposited atop it, in turn increasing the variety of devices this process has the potential to create.

Printable, Sensor-Laden Robot Skin

3-D-printed substrates will also make printable, sensor-laden robot skin possible. Although printed substrates are initially flat sheets as they print out, they can then transform into more intricate, 3-D shapes as they fold themselves up.

For example, researchers at the CSAIL Distributed Robotics Laboratory are developing self-assembling, printable robots. These robots work like the shrinky dinks of the future, going into the oven flat, and coming out folded into shape. This strategy demonstrates the power of 3-D printing an entire component — or robot — rather than simply printing individual parts of it.

“We believe that only if you’re able to print the underlying substrate can you begin to think about printing a more complex shape,” Sundaram says.

Here’s How 3D Printing is Changing Our World
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Ultimately, the goal would be to use an underlying substrate that was packed with sensors as well as working transistors so that the robot would be able to determine which inputs were important and which were just sensory “noise.” This substrate would be the ideal skin for a robot intended to react to its environment and interact intelligently with people and things around it.

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