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Materials Manufactured from 3D Printed Synthetic Biology Arrays

Principal Investigators: Diana Gentry, NASA Ames Research Center, SGE, Samson Phan, Stanford University, Lynn J. Rothschild (POC), NASA Ames Research Center, SGE

The Problem

Complex, biologically derived materials (such as wood and silk) often have extremely useful properties. However, their use in space-related applications is hampered by two primary drawbacks:

Expensive, specific production. Many of these materials can only be produced as part of significant support ecosystem. For example, spider silk can only be produced by providing a contained, sustainable habitat and appropriate food for selected species of spiders, and can then only be harvested in relatively small quantities by a laborious human-intensive process. These overhead requirements simply add too much upmass for a potential Mars habitat mission.

Limited manufacturing compatibility. Collecting and processing many such materials (for example, cotton) requires specialized equipment that adds impractical upmass or resource requirements to a potential self-contained habitat. Many cannot be worked with modern micro-scale manufacturing techniques at all (e.g., wood), limiting their use in creating potentially useful composite structures.

The Vision
  • Using structured arrays of biologically engineered cells to deposit or excrete biological materials in a specified composite pattern creating novel biomaterials and biocomposites.
  • Complex, biologically derived materials (such as wood and silk) often have extremely useful properties but their use in space-related applications is hampered by expensive production, and the limited manufacturing compatibility with space (e.g., upmass and resource requirements.) Many cannot be worked with micro-scale manufacturing techniques (e.g., wood).
  • The innovation of this project is the application of synthetic biology to 3D printing technology. Their combination presents significant challenges.

Potential impact

If successful, this application would dramatically expand manufacturing capabilities on Earth and in space:

In situ resource utilization. The ability to make a far greater range of materials and products out of the limited basic resource palette offered by existing in situ resource extraction techniques.

Reduced equipment and material upmass for off-Earth habitats. Production of a wide variety of ready-to-use highly specialized construction materials (radiation hardened, compressive/tensile, light or dense) from an extremely low starting mass, allowing for flexible production of working and living spaces tailored to off planet environments.

Structured biomaterial production. New ready-to-use macro, micro, and molecular manufacturing techniques for traditional materials such as wood, including finely calibrated microstructures.

New and novel biocomposite creation. The ability to create completely novel material composites from any base material that