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Researchers Earn NASA Grant to Explore Plasma-Jet Printing for In-Space Manufacturing

A team of researchers led by College of Engineering assistant professor Harish Subbaraman have been selected to receive a NASA Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) three-year grant of more than $700,000. With this grant, the team will explore the challenges and opportunities of plasma jet printing for NASA’s emerging In-Space Manufacturing (ISM) program.

Photo of plasma jet team in lab by plasma jet printer
Harish Subbaraman (left) with Jim Browning, Ken Cornell, David Estrada and Nirmala Kandadai pose with a plasma printer in a Ruch building COEN lab, photo Patrick Sweeney

“The ability to manufacture custom or replacement sensors, components, circuits, and systems from materials and resources available in space will greatly reduce resupply mission costs,” said Subbaraman. “ISM is expected to be an enabling capability for NASA’s space and interplanetary exploration missions, such as the lunar mission and eventual human expeditions to Mars and other surfaces.”

Currently, items that have to be resupplied during in-space missions are sent up as cargo-shipments from Earth. However, as missions become more complex and often occur farther and farther from Earth, the need to be able to create necessary materials and components in space is growing. But how would it be possible to create such specialized items in space, in zero-gravity?

Enter plasma-jet printing.

Often called the fourth element, plasma is an ionized gas with a wealth of potential uses. One example of an existing function for plasma-jet technology is wound treatment. Team member Ken Cornell, an associate professor of biochemistry, likens the process to using a tiny sand-blaster to clear away microbial biofilms on wounds.

Photo of plasma jet printer
Plasma printer in a Ruch building COEN lab, photo Patrick Sweeney

The impressive range of possibilities afforded by plasma jet printing means the technology may also lend itself to purposes beyond manufacturing, such as in-space surface sterilization, decontamination, food treatment and more. Boise State’s research team intends to make the most of these opportunities in their design.

“It’s about developing a truly multi-purpose additive printer for the International Space Station that will let astronauts manufacture equipment and replacement parts, sterilize scientific equipment, and clean food preparation and other areas to reduce potential infection – all without gravity. It reminds me of an old Saturday Night Live episode about a handy product – it’s a floor cleaner AND a dessert topping,” said Karen Marker, a grant proposal strategist and writer in the College of Engineering.

The team is comprised of science investigator Subbaraman and co-investigators David Estrada, an associate professor in the Micron School of Materials Science and Engineering; Jim Browning, an associate professor and chair of the electrical and computer engineering department; Ken Cornell, an associate professor of biochemistry; and Nirmala Kandadai, an assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering. The project will be conducted in collaboration with Space Foundry and a group of researchers led by Meyya Meyyappan at the NASA Ames Research Center.

To make this incredible technology a reality, first the NASA EPSCoR grant will enable the team to begin tackling big questions and further develop existing technology to ascertain the feasibility of plasma-jet application in space.

Subbaraman sums up the team’s goals in the following three points:

  1. “Gaining a robust understanding of the fundamental science behind the working mechanism of the plasma jet system through modeling and systematic experiments and making refinements to optimize performance;
  2. Investigating its practical cross-cutting applications;
  3. Improving our understanding of the behavior of the technology in a multidirectional operating setting.”

-By Brianne Phillips