NASA awards $100,000 to initial analysis of 3D printing of biomaterials
NASA has selected 3D printing of biomaterials, such as arrays of cells as one of the 12 proposals for study under Phase I of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program, which aims to turn science fiction into fact.
Currently many complex, biologically-derived materials have extremely useful properties (think wood or silk), but are unsuitable for space-related applications due to production, manufacturing, or processing limitations.
Cells in nature are already highly specialized for making complex biological materials on a micro scale. Researchers envision combining these strengths with the recently emergent technologies of synthetic biology and additive manufacturing to create 3D-structured arrays of cells that are bioengineered to secrete different materials in a specified three-dimensional pattern.
According to the NIAC website:
Imagine being able to print anything from tools and composite building materials to food and human tissues. Imagine being on Mars with the ability to replace any broken part, whether it's a part of your spacesuit, your habitat, or your own body. We propose a technique that would allow just that.
By printing 3D arrays of cells engineered to secrete the necessary materials, the abundant in situ resources of atmosphere and regolith become organic, inorganic, or organic-inorganic composite materials.
Such materials include novel, biologically derived materials not previously possible to fabricate.
Lynn J. Rothschild and Diana Gentry of NASA Ames Research Center, SGE, and Ashley Micks of Stanford University have been working on a proof of concept.
If successful, the ability to create completely novel material composites from any base material would allow us, for example to print artificial biofilms to see how a drug responds, or printing miniature organs rather than putting animals through testing, said Rothschild.
Other selected proposals include a range of imaginative concepts, including using galactic rays to map the insides of asteroids; and an "eternal flight" platform that could hover in Earth's atmosphere, potentially providing better imaging, Wi-Fi, power generation and other applications.
NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate chose this year's Phase I proposals based on their potential breakthroughs for Earth and space science, and the potential for new paths that expand human civilization and commerce into space, according to NIAC Program Executive Jay Falker.
NIAC Phase I awards are about $100,000 to conduct nine-month initial definition and analysis studies of a concept. If the basic feasibility studies are successful, proposers can apply for Phase II funding of as much as $500,000 for two more years of concept maturation.