Electron Beam FreeForm Fabrication — IN SPACE

In the last post I described the basics Electron Beam FreeForm Fabrication (EBF3), here’s why I’m excited about it:

Let’s walk through this process:

Metallic Refuse

Life and research aboard the ISS requires a lot of supplies and results in good amounts of waste.  This is the most expensive garbage in the world, and, due to the restricted lab and living space, includes completed experiments and spent supply ships along with the more obvious packaging, clothing, food, and other waste. Given the nature of space exploration, this waste components of this waste are known absolutely and excellent candidates for in-orbit recycling.  Used Progress and other supply ships, having arrived at station, could likely be stripped of components and structures that are not required for their reentry garbage truck function and again recycled into new components and structures.  Though accompanied by greater risk, ISS (or some other manned or unmanned station) could also serve as a destination for end-of-life satellites as the only place where there residual in-orbit material value may be captured.

Garbage, Meet Recycler

If you introduce a metal into an electric field sufficient to overcome the intermetallic bonds, those bonds will break, freeing electrically-charged ions from the donor.  This plasmification is the basis for vacuum deposition, but what if the donor is not a pure metal but rather some alloy?  What if the donor is something like the aluminized mylar found in space (-age) blankets?

The second part of this step is an external electromagnetic field, as commonly found in mass spectrometers.  If the plasma is accelerated by an electric field and then encounters a magnetic field, the ions will arc according to the strength of the field and their mass.  With the electric and magnetic fields coarsely tuned according to the known properties of the garbage, its component atoms can be sorted into atomically-pure stacks.

Sorted Feedstock

These atomically-pure stacks are highly valuable, due to their purity and location in earth orbit, as long as there is a process by which they can be made into something new.

Feedstock, Meet Printer

The same combination of electric and magnetic fields used to recycle garbage can be 3D printed into new components and structures.  By selectively introducing atomically-pure feedstock into the same electron beam used for plasmification and guiding the plasma via the same magnetic field, a part could be build layer-upon-layer.  This is essentially EBF3, though instead of a translating build platform the platform could be stationary and the beam scanned across the part by varying the magnetic fields.  (Though for alloying a translating stage or translating emitter might be required…)

3D Printed, Variable Alloy Components…In Space

3D printing metallic components in space would be a game changer; it would allow recycling of substantial fractions of today’s orbital garbage into new components that equal or rival their terrestrially-produced counterparts.  Further, the cycle described could also be applied to asteroidal and other in-space resources.  I don’t know what technology Deep Space Industries envisions…

…but I can’t see why EBF3 would not meet their needs.

Finally,

I’ve spent 500 words describing this concept, but it seems to be worth much more study.  While the individual elements of the described cycle exist terrestrially (and mass spectrometry has been used on many robotic space missions) they have not been integrated into a single apparatus.

Many questions accompany this concept; I hope to explore some of these going forward (as posts, and perhaps more formally), and, more than that, answer why MadeInSpace is on the ISS rather this…

Electron Beam FreeForm Fabrication (EBF3)

There are many cool things happening in 3D printing these days, but the technique I’m most excited about, electron beam freeform fabrication (EBF3), has received very little coverage.  So in this and following posts, I want to describe the basics of this technique and some of the cases where I think it is the ideal manufacturing technology.

Printing in plastic is easy.  Heat some PLA or ABS to 300-400F and squirt it out of a small nozzel while tracing the outlines of your part.  Alternately, selectively shine a UV light source on some UV-cure epoxy and you have a stereolithography machine.  These two techniques, finally free from patent protection, are responsible for virtually all of the media buzz in 3D printing.

While these technologies accomplish the basic aim of converting a CAD design into a dimensional prototype, few of these additively-produced prototypes can withstand loadings similar to those a traditionally-machined part (even when machined from the same plastic, let alone metal versus printed plastic).  Not every application needs this durability, but it is the greatest limitation of every 3D printer you’ve probably heard of.

Printing in metal is expensive; in contrast to the great variety of Kickstarted $300-3,000 consumer/prosumer printers, MatterFab made news this past summer with the announcement of a metal-printer targeted at $100,000.  This printer, and it’s million-dollar-plus competitors, uses a kilowatt-class laser to melt particles in a metal powder together, forming a solid part.  Depending on the scan speed, laser intensity, and material addition rate, this method (referred to as laser-engineered net shaping – LENS – and metal laser sintering) can produce fully-dense parts with material properties similar to those of cast or annealed parts.  Since melting the metallic powder depends on the relationship between the laser wavelength and intensity and the powder’s melting point and absorbtivity, machine cost and material selection are closely related.  Common configurations have difficulty producing aluminum, titanium-aluminide, tungsten, magnetic alloys, and others.   These difficulties are easily explained by considering the reflectivity of some common metals versus common laser wavelengths:

Reflectivity of common metals and common laser wavelengths. HPLD stands for high-powered laser diode. Chart courtesy Kennedy, Byrne, and Collins, 2004.
Reflectivity of common metals and common laser wavelengths. HPLD stands for high-powered laser diode. Chart courtesy Kennedy, Byrne, and Collins, 2004.

Similar to LENS, Electron Beam Freeform Fabrication (EBF3) directly melts metallic materials to form a fully dense part, though using an electron beam rather than a laser. EBF3 commonly uses a stationary electron beam and a multi-degree-of-freedom positioning system to build parts layer-by-layer. As shown below, the electron beam is focused at a particular point, melting any co-located materials. Introducing new material into this region – by a wire feeder – increases the volume of this pool. Indexing the positioning system causes the pool to move, leaving behind newly deposited material. Adding a second wire feeder enables in-pool alloying and the production of functional gradients (varying the alloy along the part). Most EBF3 systems operate inside a vacuum chamber to both prevent the surrounding environment from attenuating the electron beam, which also eliminate the prospect of part contamination.

Left: Schematic representation of electron beam freeform fabrication (EBF3), courtesy Taminger & Hafley, 2008. Right: An EBF3 machine at NASA Langley, courtesy of Bird & Hibberd, 2009.
Left: Schematic representation of electron beam freeform fabrication (EBF3), courtesy Taminger & Hafley, 2008. Right: An EBF3 machine at NASA Langley, courtesy of Bird & Hibberd, 2009.

Along with the prospect of metal-agnostic (or more so than LENS), studies from an EBF3 research group at NASA Langley indicate that resulting parts are stronger than wrought and tempered alloys:

Comparison of EBF3-produced Al 2219 to Al sheet and plate from Taminger & Hafley, 2008. ‘Typical’ refers to conventionally-produced wrought and tempered sheet and plate properties. Of note, the ‘As-deposited’ specimen has greater strength than the wrought and a T62-tempered EBF3 deposit outperforms a conventional T62 alloy.
Comparison of EBF3-produced Al 2219 to Al sheet and plate from Taminger & Hafley, 2008. ‘Typical’ refers to conventionally-produced wrought and tempered sheet and plate properties. Of note, the ‘As-deposited’ specimen has greater strength than the wrought and a T62-tempered EBF3 deposit outperforms a conventional T62 alloy.

In addition to producing parts with commendable material strength, EBF3 is a fast process. Able to trade resolution for speed, EBF3 has been demonstrated at deposition rates of 178 to 594 cm3/hr (11-36 in3/hr) in Al 2219 and 434 cm3/hr (26.5 in3/hr) in Ti-6-4 [Taminger & Hafley, 2008]. As a point of comparison, a representative laser-based system deposits at 8 to 33 cm3/hr (0.5 – 2 in3/hr) [Taminger & Hafley, 2010].  The electron beam is also more efficient at delivering energy to melt pool, at approximately 95%, than a laser process, which might see 10% efficiency due to losses in the laser, beam transmission losses, and the naturally high reflectivity of most metals [Taminger & Hafley, 2010].

According to Lori Garver (NASA Deputy Administrator through 2013), EBF3 is used in fabricating the titanium spars for use in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; some more mundane results are below:

Parts produced in Taminger & Hafley, 2008: a) a TI-6-4 wind tunnel model, b) a square box of Al 2219, c) an Al 2219 airfoil, d) an Al 2219 mixer nozzle, e) an Al 2219 converging/diverging nozzle, f) a Ti-6-4 guy wire fitting, g) a Ti-6-4 inlet duct, and h) a Ti-6-4 truss node.
Parts produced in Taminger & Hafley, 2008: a) a TI-6-4 wind tunnel model, b) a square box of Al 2219, c) an Al 2219 airfoil, d) an Al 2219 mixer nozzle, e) an Al 2219 converging/diverging nozzle, f) a Ti-6-4 guy wire fitting, g) a Ti-6-4 inlet duct, and h) a Ti-6-4 truss node.

The significant disadvantage of EBF3 is poorer control of the part surface quality than plastic and LENS printers. EBF3 part resolution is essentially limited by the feed wire diameter, but this diameter dependence has not been demonstrated in the literature.  Given the commercial availability of LENS techniques, the majority of the community has focused on understanding EBF3 and its unique alloying ability.  EBF3‘s selling point of printing with high strength alloys places the focus on accurate alloy production; applications demanding these alloys are sufficiently advanced (and costly) to delay interest in higher resolution.

EBF3 also requires an evacuated build environment, on the order of 1×10-4 Torr, adding an appreciable degree of complexity to any EBF3 (terrestrial) system [Taminger & Hafley, 2008].  Davé’s original 1995 description mentions that use of a high-energy electron beam (>500keV) can eliminate the need for vacuum, though such a device will be accompanied by its own complexities in generating large potentials. The literature has apparently not yet considered this variation.

Producing spars for the F35 is nice, but to me the killer application for EBF3 is not terrestrial, but in-space.  In the next post I’ll lay out why I think EBF3 is the ideal in-space manufacturing technology.