Virginia Tech University gets $1 million grant to study 3D printing in space

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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has awarded up to $1 million over the next three years into research in Virginia Tech’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering to study 3D printing in space.

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The project will be led by Associate Professor Hang Yu, who will receive the funding beginning this year through DARPA’s prestigious Young Faculty Award program. The award guarantees $500,000 for two years, beginning this fall. If all benchmarks are met, the project could qualify for a third year and another $500,000.

DARPA was created in the 1950s by President Dwight D. Eisenhower after the Russian launch of the Sputnik satellite caused concern that the U.S. might fall behind in national defense and security. The agency has been instrumental in developing society-changing technologies, such as the internet, stealth technology, GPS navigation, drones, and mRNA vaccines.

“They emphasize high-reward, high-risk projects,” Yu said. “And they want to get things done quickly.”

Yu’s lab focuses on a metal manufacturing process called Additive Friction Stir Deposition (AFSD), which has drawn great attention recently from the aerospace and defense sectors. The low-temperature 3D-printing process can assemble components using metals, such as high-strength aluminum and titanium, without melting them. By building up layers of the materials, AFSD can manufacture components in a range of sizes and shapes that have better strength and fewer defects than components printed using other processes. AFSD also can be used to repair metal components.

Yu and his research team already work with the Department of Defense, including a Naval Air Systems Command project that examines ways to use low-temperature 3D metal printing to repair specialty aluminum components used in airplanes.

The DARPA project will focus on autonomous manufacture and repair for austere environments like space, creating new challenges for Yu’s lab. His team will work on it with a corporate partner, MetroLaser Inc., a California-based company that develops laser-powered optical diagnostics systems.

Kendall Knight, a doctoral student in Yu’s lab, will help direct the interdisciplinary research group working on the project. The group includes student members from materials science and electrical engineering and will use data analytics and artificial intelligence components.

“The way DARPA is looking at it is: ‘How can we print metal on the moon or Mars or in the deep ocean, and have confidence it will be strong enough?’” Knight said.

Knight, who has a background in mechanical engineering, is part of a three-student interdisciplinary team working on the project.

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