Chemical 3D printing in space

As humans venture deeper into space for longer periods, maintaining a supply chain for necessities like drugs and fuel from Earth becomes ever more impractical. Glasgow researchers, led by Regius Professor of Chemistry Lee Cronin, are working on a novel solution: 3D printing chemical micro-factories driven by the “Chemputer” – a universal programming system for chemistry.

“Access to the universal chemistry set available on Earth is going to be essential for humans living in deep space to enable new science, repair and maintenance work, and the production of drugs, sensors, fuel and feedstock,” says Lee.

There are no high street chemists on Mars and drugs transported from Earth can be degraded by radiation and high levels of carbon dioxide in space storage. Using a chemical platform (the Chemputer) and raw materials to manufacture drugs or fuel or other basic chemical transformations when required will be a fundamental requirement for human space exploration in the future. In effect, 3D printing chemical micro-factories could enable space travellers to print their own medicine.

“The only way to achieve this is to bring a minimal chemistry set into space that can then be built into more complex molecules, materials and polymers,” says Lee. “The Digital Chemistry project aims to do this using a 3D printer to print the chemical building blocks which can then be reacted in a cascade to give the compound required in a pure form on the micro-chemistry lab.”

Back on Earth, Chemputer-driven chemical micro-factories combined with a universal toolkit of chemistry could revolutionise the future of drug design, discovery and manufacturing.