'4D printing' could hold key to humanity’s future in space (VIDEOS)

'4D printing' could hold key to humanity’s future in space (VIDEOS)
Innovation over the last decade has seen a massive proliferation of 3D-printing technology, but 4D printing, where time plays a crucial role in the final structure, could be the future of human space exploration and habitation, according to researchers.

The rather unique solution comes courtesy of the Georgia Institute of Technology and may resolve multiple problems plaguing not only the commercial space exploration industry, but also the biomedical and medical instruments industries.

Georgia Tech's method of '4D printing' relies on temperature change over time in order for initially 3D-printed structures to rise and take their final forms.

4D printing relies on a principle known as tensegrity, a system in which the perfect combination of light, strong and collapsible structures can take a robust form based around the perfect balance of tension between their constituent parts. Essentially, it would be flat-pack furniture on a bigger scale – in space.

Tensegrity has been applied to everything from suspension bridges to football stadiums here on Earth, but could afford mankind the opportunity to bring pre-programmed lightweight structures into space and construct them with relative ease and minimal materials.

“The memory is embedded in the struts. There is no memory in the cables,” Professor Glaucio Paulino told TechCrunch. “They are a flexible material. All of the memory is printed only on the struts. When we printed, we came up with a technique that allowed us to print this memory.”

The Georgia Tech team uses 149-degree Fahrenheit (65-degree Celsius) water to bring their structures to life in much the same way that organic life, such as flower petals, respond to external stimuli in nature like light and heat.

The Georgia Tech researchers are now able to program the rate at which their structures unfurl, after a long process of trial and error, which will prevent future mishaps.

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The team is experimenting with temporary structures that can be built and repacked on demand. However, Paulino says materials science has a long way to go before such a project can be undertaken with any degree of reliability.

Research into 4D printing could not only provide the breakthrough needed to begin widespread construction in space, but could also yield huge benefits in biomedicine, with custom-printed stents and other devices built to react to your own body heat and expand to fit your body perfectly.