3D-Printed Ion Thruster "Will Help Democratize Nanosatellite Space Hardware"

Future CubeSats could be powered by ion thrusters 3D-printed at a fraction of the cost of classic cleanroom designs.

Gareth Halfacree
8 months ago3D Printing

A pair of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Escuela de Ingeniería y Ciencias (EIC) have published a paper validating the design of a novel propulsion source for nanosatellites — created on a 3D printer.

"This study reports the design, fabrication, and characterization of novel, low-cost, additively manufactured, miniaturized, multiplexed electrospray sources with zinc oxide nanowire (ZnONW)-based nanofluidics that produce, in both polarities, pure ions from ionic liquids," the researchers explain in the paper's abstract. "The emitting electrodes are 3D-printed using either SS 316L via binder jetting or FunToDo Industrial Blend resin via vat polymerization. The extractor electrode is 3D-printed using SS 316L via binder jetting."

“Making the devices via 3D printing is 1 percent of the cost and time it takes making them in the cleanroom," co-author Luis Fernando Velásquez-García explains, in an interview with IEEE Spectrum on his work with colleague Dulce Viridiana Melo Máximo. "There’s this idea that space is for the best and wealthiest, and our work could help change that. Space is for everyone."

"A key advantage of 3D printing is that it allows you to aggressively iterate designs. In 3D printing, it’s okay to make mistakes. You learn from your mistakes, and you have the time and resources to make better devices."

Measuring around the same diameter as a dime, the tiny 3D-printed thrusters are covered in zinc oxide nanowires. As the wires draw a liquid from a reservoir, ions are squirted out of miniature nozzles - providing a tiny, but useful, amount of thrust, and enough to help position a nanosatellite.

"With advances in 3D printing hardware," the paper concludes, "these devices could reach emitter densities comparable to those realized in semiconductor cleanrooms or by using precision subtractive manufacturing methods, while incurring in significantly lower manufacturing costs and fabrication times. This will help democratize nanosatellite space hardware."

The paper is available under open-access terms following its publication in the journal Additive Manufacturing.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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