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Report from Maker Faire: Plastic Recycling Made in Space

Plastic recycler

Amanda Manna of Lowe’s Innovation Labs with plastic recycler mock-up at the 2016 National Maker Faire (A. Kotok)

20 June 2016. Editor’s note: Science & Enterprise visited the National Maker Faire, a celebration of inventors and tinkerers that took place this past weekend (18-19 June) in Washington, D.C. While some corporate giants were there — e.g., GE, Microsoft, Intel — and most exhibits were aimed at hobbyists and school kids, we found a few science-based small businesses with good stories to tell. Here’s the first of two reports.

For space travelers, 3-D printing meets a critical need to make items on the spot, without calling back to Earth. And since there’s no trash pick-up in space, recycling is just as important, if not more. The company Made In Space, an enterprise with about 30 employees in Silicon Valley working largely under contracts with NASA, aims to fill both of those needs.

The International Space Station now has a zero-gravity 3-D printer developed by Made In Space delivered in late 2014 , that crew members tested for a year. In November 2015, the company was chosen by NASA to lead development of a space-based additive manufacturing technology for space station crews to make more of the larger, more complex items they need.

Since space station systems must also consider waste handling, Made In Space is developing a zero-gravity material recycler. That technology got the attention of Lowe’s home improvement stores, which already partners with Made In Space on 3-D printing projects. The companies saw an opportunity to design a system that recycles waste household plastic right in Lowe’s stores.

The store-based recycling system, which had a full-size mock-up on display at Maker Faire, is an outgrowth of the Made In Space zero-gravity recycling technology. The prototype system recycles polyethylene plastic bags and bottles into plastic filament for 3-D printers and household items like water buckets.  Mike Pless, an engineer for Made In Space, says the device — about the size of a small car — grinds up the discarded bags and bottles, and under heat and pressure converts the plastic into reusable material, in this case printer filament. On the space station, waste plastic would go back into filament for the station’s 3-D printers.

Amanda Manna of Lowe’s Innovation Labs says her company began partnering with Made In Space about two years ago. She notes that the collaboration resulted in a commercial 3-D printer now in use on the space station.  Earlier in June, the companies announced that 3-D printer made its first tool,  a wrench custom designed for use on the space station.

Also from Maker Faire: Wrist Band Takes Blood Pressure

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