Building Dust Castles on the Moon

I came across a short story on the popular-science website the other day about an Italian firm, Monolite UK, and its three-dimensional printing technology, D-shape. I think I’m behind the times, but I had never heard of a 3-D printer before, so I looked into things a bit more.

A ZPrinter from Z Corporation. Credit: Z Corp.

In the U.S., the “it” company for 3-D printers seems to be Burlington, Mass.-based Z Corporation. This firm produces “Zprinters,” which are roughly the size of copy machines and combine various powders and binders to rapidly create 3-D prototypes for industrial users. A quick search revealed plenty of Zprinters in action on YouTube. But by far, my favorite video was a clip from CSI:NY. Gary Sinise is using a Zprinter to reconstruct a bullet, which we are led to believe will somehow save a policeman’s horse. Yes, I said horse. By itself, the dialogue in this clip is enough to produce a chuckle, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t entirely necessary to print this bullet just to compare its size to a chart on a wall. The scene seems to have been shot entirely to enable Sinise to utter the word “Zprinter.” Monolite’s D-shape printer, one the other hand, is being marketed as a robotic building system for the construction industry. According to the firm, architects can build free-standing “fantastically complex” structures without too much elbow grease and without construction workers. The process begins when an architect designs a structure in a CAD software program (that’s computer-aided design for those of you who were never forced to sit through a mechanical engineering class). The design is uploaded to D-shape, which is composed of a giant metal framework and a translational print head. Printing from the bottom to the top in cross sections, D-shape then puts down layers of sand sandwiched with layers of inorganic binder in a pattern corresponding to the CAD design.
According to the D-shape website, the solidification process for these sandstone structures takes 24 hours, and the final product has a stress resistance that rivals Portland Cement. The part of all of this that caught my eye was that Enrico Dini, Monolite’s chairman, has plans to test D-shape in a vacuum chamber to determine whether the equipment could operate on the surface of the moon. He wants to build lunar structures using the moon’s native dust. I tried to contact Dini to ask how these tests were panning out, to learn more about the inorganic binders used by D-shape, and to figure out just what the point of building something on the moon might be. Alas, I received no reply. Baah! What pipe dreams some sci-fi enthusiasts conjure up! Now if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to playing with the light saber app I just downloaded to my Droid. May the Fourth be with you.

Courtesy of Jyllian Kemsley

In the Comments section below, I posed a question to C&EN’s “Safety Zone” blog author, Jyllian Kemsley. She has responded with a pic of a model of C80H80 that was printed for her on a 3-D printer. Note the multiple colors used to generate the prototype and the fact that Beaker, our unofficial mascot, is coveting the model just as much as I am.

Author: Lauren Wolf

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  1. After I wrote a story on theoretical predictions of as-yet-unsynthesized molecules, one of my sources sent me a printed 3D model of C80H80. It’s still one of my favorite things in my office.

  2. Wow, Jyllian, I’m jealous! Is it multicolored too? I noticed that the Zprinters come with colored-powder cartridges.