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UW-Madison Engineers Achieve Zero Gravity 3D Printing of RAM

Published on June 4, 2024 by Isaac B.

Student engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have taken a giant leap toward self-sustaining space exploration by successfully 3D printing Random Access Memory (RAM) devices in zero gravity. This achievement, realized in March 2024, represents a significant advancement for long-duration space missions.

Traditional 3D printing techniques rely on gravity to function, allowing the printer to extrude materials through its nozzle, a method incompatible with the zero-gravity conditions of space. To address this, the UW-Madison team, led by Assistant Professor Hantang Qin from the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, developed a novel approach known as electrohydrodynamic (EHD) printing.

(Photo Credits: UW-Madison)

This technique leverages electrical forces to propel liquid materials through an ultra-fine nozzle measuring just 30 micrometers in diameter. Despite the zero-gravity conditions of space, the tension created by this micro-nozzle prevents the material from seeping out of the printer at any time outside the printing process. Elaborating on this process, Qin stated, “Under this small scale, the surface tension will prevent the liquid from flowing out from this nozzle. And then we apply this electrical force to break out of this surface tension force.”

Funded by NASA, this research seeks to develop a robust in-space manufacturing method for critical electronic components like semiconductors, actuators, and sensors. On-demand repair capabilities would eliminate the need to pre-launch replacement parts, streamlining space missions and enabling new possibilities.

The research team conducted a series of parabolic flights, replicating the weightlessness of space through rapid ascents and descents. On their final test flight, the UW-Madison engineers achieved successful 3D printing of over a dozen RAM units using zinc oxide, a semiconducting ink, and several more with polydimethylsiloxane, an insulating polymer ink. The printing process, manually controlled by team members Rayne Wolf and Jacob Kocemba, was validated post-flight using microscopes in a makeshift laboratory, confirming the production of high-quality micro- and nanoscale structures.

UW-Madison student engineers in zero-gravity conditions before testing. (Photo Credits: UW-Madison)

This successful demonstration marks a crucial milestone in the development of in-space manufacturing technologies. The UW-Madison team’s achievement in 3D printing RAM in zero gravity paves the way for the on-demand production of essential electronic components during space missions, enhancing the sustainability and autonomy of long-duration space explorations. Moreover, it addresses the practical challenges of wear and tear in astronaut equipment, ensuring continuous operation and reducing mission costs and risks associated with returning to Earth for repairs or calling for Earth-to-space shipments of new hardware components.

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*Cover Photo Credits: University of Wisconsin-Madison

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