UC Berkeley research teams test 3D printing in zero-gravity flight

Photo of a G-Force One Aircraft
Steve Jurvetson/Creative Commons
UC Berkeley researchers tested a 3D printer in zero-gravity conditions and studied microfluidic technology in hopes of further exploring space and extraterrestrial life. (Photo by Steve Jurvetson under CC BY 2.0)

Related Posts

Two UC Berkeley research teams tested the “replicator,” a light-based 3D printer, in zero-gravity conditions mimicking space flights aboard Zero-G’s G-Force One on May 10.

According to Matin Golozar, campus biophysics Ph.D. student, the flight took off and landed at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport with the purpose of testing programmable microfluidic analyzers — microfluidic chemical processing systems otherwise known as PMA.

“The PMA is the front end sample processing technology that will be used in the Enceladus Organic Analyzer,” Golozar, who also works at the Space Sciences Laboratory, said in an email. “We plan to fly this instrument to Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn, and probe for extraterrestrial life in our solar system.”

One team composed of five campus graduate and undergraduate students used the replicator to print more than 100 objects under the zero-gravity conditions, according to a campus press release.

The press release added how the second team, which included campus and University of Utah collaborators, used its time in zero gravity to operate a “microfluidic lab-on-a-chip” that can be used to search for biomolecules in the oceans of Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth-largest moon.

The flights were funded by NASA under the REDDI flight grant program, according to Taylor Waddell, one of the researchers aboard the flight. The UC Berkeley technologies were two of 31 technologies selected for the program, according to a NASA press release.

“In these initial experiments we learned how to fabricate a complete analytical system in a format that can be flown,” Golozar said in an email. “We also demonstrated that microfluidic pumping and mixing can be performed in 0 g with the same performance as (found) on earth under 1 g conditions.”

The press release noted the flight simulated zero-gravity conditions by flying in a series of parabolic arcs. Historically, parabolic flights have been used by NASA to help acclimate astronauts to the zero-gravity conditions of space flight, the press release added.

Moving forward, the researchers plan to continue conducting research for their studies.

“With these successful results we will now go on to two more flights in the fall where we will be testing the ability of our analyzer to perform important clinical biochemical experiments that can be used to monitor astronaut health status in space,” Golozar said in the email.

The experiment is also a major step in the advancement of the Technology Readiness Level, or TRL, of the “analyzer” mentioned by Golozar. He described the advancement of the TRL as the “most important thing” to prepare the instrument for a journey to Saturn.

Waddell added the goal of the experiments is to make the light-based 3D printer a useful tool for the International Space Station.

The final space-flight instrument will be built in the campus Space Sciences Laboratory, a research lab with a rich history of producing spacecraft and instruments.

“We believe that this instrument which is a collaboration of Berkeley Chemistry, Berkeley SSL and Utah Mechanical Engineering is the best and most powerful instrument for probing for organic signs of life in our solar system,” Golozar said in the email.

Contact Phoebe Chen at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @ph0ebechen.