The refabricator turns plastic waste into raw material for 3D printing — in space

Technology |  2 min. read

Have you seen “The Refabricator” yet?

We won’t tell anybody, but if you HAVE seen it – that probably makes you a science geek.  Because “The Refabricator” isn’t a science fiction series streaming on Netflix – it’s a science fact, on board the International Space Station.

In fact, The Refabricator IS a refabricator.

(Photo from NASA)

And WHAT, you ask, does a refabricator do?

It’s a combination of a plastic recycling machine and a 3D-printer:  the astronauts feed in plastic waste – the Refabricator melts that down – and turns it into “high quality” filament (this is NASA, after all, so not just any filament will do).  Then the astronauts can use that, to print something they need.

A quick note...

Almost all plastic, of any kind, used for anything – starts with petrochemicals.  In this case, plastic bags generally are made from polyethylene or polypropylene, which is made from the petrochemical, ethylene or propylene (ok, that was pretty obvious).  And foam?  Most commonly, that’s made from polystyrene, which in turn is made from the petrochemical, benzene (sorry, benzene is reacted with ethylene to make ethylbenzene, then styrene, which is then converted to polystyrene. But a direct conversion of benzene would have been too easy.  Isn’t chemistry fun?).

So, for example, the plastic bags and foam that much of their supplies come packed in?

(Photo from NASA)

You could send it back down to Earth, but at a shipping cost around $10,000 a pound – well, maybe not.  And on the other hand, when you need something, like a new spork, you don’t want to be calling Mission Control every time.

The Refabricator can turn those into a plastic syringe, a custom-made wrench, a space spork, whatever you can print on a 3D-printer.  And in theory, they can do that over and over and over again (in fact, the Refabricator is a test of that theory – to see how many times you can recycle the same plastic before it starts to degrade).

Recycling plastic is cool and responsible and important, of course – but on the International Space Station, recycling is even more all of those things.

For starters, there isn’t much space up there in space – it’s tight quarters inside the space station, so you don’t want to just store the recycling.

The Refabricator could be the solution to both problems.  Need to take out the recycling? – pop it into the Refabricator.  Need a new tool? – print one up on the Refabricator.

Important as it is on the space station, gear like the Refabricator could be an essential part of more distant space missions – like a voyage to Mars, where there might be years between one mission and the next.  And one day, we might even see Refabricators here on Earth (drop off your plastic bottles on one trip to the grocery store – and next time, you might pick them up again, as your six-pack of Aquafina).

By the way, there actually IS a Refabricator movie (ok, a short – it’s only 3-and-a-half minutes long), and on this NASA ScienceCast you can take a look for yourself.  (Maybe the tag line for this show should be:  “The Refabricator:  because there are no blue bins in outer space.”)