NASA scientists take bioprinting to new heights

Conventional electronic components have some disadvantages: They add weight and have the tendency to break. While this is not a huge problem on earth, the need to bring replacement parts can add significant costs to a space mission. Dr. Lynn Rothschild from NASA is now working on a solution that uses microbes as bioink and a printer to recycle spent electronics.

Space travel relies on electronics. But conventional electronic components have some disadvantages: They add weight and have the tendency to break. While this is not a huge problem on earth, the need to bring replacement parts can add significant costs to a space mission. Dr. Lynn Rothschild, senior scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center, is now working on a solution that uses microbes to recycle spent electronics.

The process, explained in a simplified manner, involves grinding up broken electronics such as cell phones or tablets and feed them to microorganisms. To create new electronics, the microbes will be used as bioink to print new integrated circuit (IC) chips, using plasma jet electronics printing. While the benefits for space travel are clear, the technology could have an even greater impact for our planet: “Yes, we envision this being a game-changer for recycling on earth,” Dr. Rothschild wrote in an email interview.

Dr. Rothschild’s project titled ‘Urban biomining meets printable electronics: end-to-end destination biological recycling and reprinting’, has been selected by NASA for Phase 1 of its Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. The project has also been supported by the Advanced Exploration Systems group at NASA.

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Dr. Rothschild’s lab has been interested in biomining – mining with the help of microbes – since 2011. When a graduate intern, Jesica Navarrete, arrived with both an interest in biomining and a masters degree in geology, the team was able to make this work a reality and Jesica Navarrete continued to work on the topic for her PhD thesis. Scientists in other research labs at NASA Ames had been developing a plasma printer, which turned out to be an important part of the puzzle. “When we discovered that our cells could be feedstock for their printer all the stars had aligned!” says Dr. Rothschild.

For a proof-of-principle the scientists are using a microbe that is commonly used labs, Escherichia coli. The process works with single metals at present and the researchers are getting ready to try it with a mixture of metals before they move on to the next challenge: a ground-up cell phone or computer.

In this phase of the research, the scientists are developing the method and analyzing what kind of infrastructure would be required to execute this concept on Mars. They are also looking at the benefits the technology could have on earth. The process could make metal recycling less toxic and could improve the availability of metals for electronics by reducing the need for traditional mining. And those would be pretty impressive results – both in a terrestrial and space environment.