NASA Innovations

All-electric planes; recycling 3D printers

NASA…well, they just…have all the coolest stuff.

You’d think their mystique would fade with age, but they continue to churn out awe-inducing technology, making you feel no different than a six-year old who knows he’s going to be an astronaut. They just achieved an astronomical milestone in reaching Jupiter with the Juno spacecraft. Also, this month, the administration has released battery-electric planes and recycling-capable 3D printers.

The airplane is an exhibition in design innovation; engineered for less pollution and lower noise. It’s also the first invention in its particular class in over ten years. The X-57, nicknamed “Maxwell,” will experiment with 14 electric motors used to turn propellers, all integrated into a specially designed wing. The X-57 was first mentioned by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a keynote speech Friday at AIAA Aviation 2016 in Washington, D.C. It was later detailed in a press release by NASA and has gained plenty of followers since—from Popular Mechanics to WIRED magazine.

This artist's concept of NASA's X-57 Maxwell aircraft shows the plane's specially designed wing and 14 electric motors. NASA Aeronautics researchers will use the Maxwell to demonstrate that electric propulsion can make planes quieter, more efficient and more environmentally friendly. Credits: NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc.

This artist’s concept of NASA’s X-57 Maxwell aircraft shows the plane’s specially designed wing and 14 electric motors. NASA Aeronautics researchers will use the Maxwell to demonstrate that electric propulsion can make planes quieter, more efficient and more environmentally friendly.—NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc. photo

Its original wing and two gas-fueled piston engines will be replaced with a long, skinny wing embedded with 14 electric motors – 12 on the leading edge for take offs and landings, and one larger motor on each wing tip for use while at cruise altitude, according to a NASA press release dated June 17. Researchers and engineers involved in the project expect the improved technology to result in a five-time reduction in the energy required for a private plane to cruise at 175 mph.

“Maxwell” will be powered only by batteries, eliminating carbon emissions and demonstrating how demand would shrink for lead-based aviation fuel still in use by general aviation. Energy efficiency at cruise altitude using X-57 technology could benefit travelers by reducing flight times and fuel usage, as well as reducing overall operational costs for small aircraft by as much as 40 percent.

Planes have also managed to fly under the radar for their role in climate change. For years now, workers in the coal and oil industries have been subjected to constant scrutiny, admonished and worn down by government agencies. These folks must have been imploring the government, “What about them??!!” while pointing the finger at the sky. Plenty are aware of it, but their essential role in everyday transportation has overshadowed the negative effects. Typically, to get the best fuel efficiency an airplane has to fly slower than it is able. Electric propulsion essentially eliminates the penalty for cruising at higher speeds. It would also be quieter.

The plane’s nickname honors Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who made a number of discoveries in the field of electromagnetism.

NASA’s newest version of a 3D printer might honestly be even more interesting. Not only is it being designed to reside in space, but it’s also green…the environmental kind.

The Refabricator is a 3D printer capable of producing its own feedstock from recycled plastic.—Tethers Unlimited image

The Refabricator is a 3D printer capable of producing its own feedstock from recycled plastic.—Tethers Unlimited image

The Refabricator is being prepared for the International Space Station, where one 3D printer already resides. NASA is currently working on utilizing 3D printing at the ISS because it enables them to produce almost anything while they’re already up there. Now the goal is to make things that astronauts can use to travel further. With the first 3D printer, however, there’s inevitable waste that builds up from production. The Refabricator aims to recycle detritus from 3D printing projects in space and reuse it for more of them in the future. It is “one part 3D printer and one part material recycling system meant to demonstrate a form of ‘closed-cycle’ in-space manufacturing,” according to Engineering.com’s Michael Molitch-Hou. “Using Firmamentum’s patent-pending Positrusion filament recycling system, the device will recycle 3D-printed objects as a means of limiting the amount of printing material that would be needed to launch into space,” Molitch-Hou reported June 27.

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