EL PASO, TX – The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) has joined a NASA-led project to leverage 3D printing processes to manufacture rechargeable batteries using lunar and Martian regolith, which is the top layer of materials that covers the surface of the Moon and Mars.
“UTEP is a national leader in additive manufacturing for space applications,” said Kenith Meissner, Ph.D., dean of the UTEP College of Engineering. “I congratulate the team of UTEP researchers involved in this important work. I am confident that their work will add significant value to this project, bringing us closer to returning to the Moon and our first forays beyond.”
According to the university, the grant received of $615,000 is part of a $2.5 million project involving Youngstown State University (YSU), 3D printer manufacturer Formlabs, as well as ICON, the private sector company currently leading NASA’s Mars Dune Alpha project, which aims to 3D print future habitats on Mars.
The long-term goal of the project is to maximize the sustainability of future astronaut lunar and Martian missions by reducing payload weight and dead volume. Utilizing widely available local resources on the Moon or Mars is crucial for developing infrastructure such as habitation modules, power generation and energy storage facilities.
“UTEP is a critical partner in this NASA-led project because of our long and deep experience in additive manufacturing,” said Eric MacDonald, professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering and associate dean of UTEP’s College of Engineering. “UTEP’s reputation in 3D printing, materials science and our state-of-the-art facilities were important factors in convincing our NASA partners to pursue this potentially transformative research – for space exploration, but also for terrestrial battery applications.”
Conformable batteries are complex 3D battery designs that outperform existing commercial batteries due to their ability to conform to the dimensions of objects. These custom batteries are especially suited for applications in small spacecraft, portable power devices, robots, and large-scale power systems for habitat missions on the Moon and Mars.
Another potential outcome of this work is the development of conformable batteries that can be used on Earth. These batteries could be embedded in 3D printed concrete walls and connected to solar power generation to create compact, self-sufficient housing for disaster response and in developing countries.
While commercial lithium-ion batteries can be found in most current applications, manufacturing lithium-ion batteries from lunar and Martian soil is not a viable option, as lithium is hardly available on the Moon. For this project, the UTEP research team is currently focusing its work on sodium-ion battery chemistry based on the higher abundance of sodium.
“This project with NASA is an opportunity to demonstrate UTEP’s expertise in both energy storage and 3D printing. Additive manufacturing appears as a unique approach to make conformable batteries to support human operations in space and on the surface of the Moon or Mars, where charge replenishment is not as readily available,” said Alexis Maurel, a French Fulbright Scholar in UTEP’s Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering.
In the initial phase of the project, NASA, UTEP and YSU will identify and work on extracting battery materials and precursors from lunar and Martian regolith. The UTEP/YSU team has already developed and 3D printed VPP composite resin feedstocks for each part of the sodium-ion battery (i.e., electrodes, electrolyte, current collector).
The team at the Marshall Space Flight Center and NASA Ames Research Center developed and 3D printed composite inks for the various components of the battery. UTEP and NASA Glenn Research Center are electrochemically testing the 3D printed sodium-ion battery components.