NASA plasma printer

You don’t see this in your typical science fiction space Western movie, but the fact is that stuff wears out and breaks. People traveling to Mars aren’t going to be able to carry enough spare parts to fix everything; they’re going to need a way to fabricate devices on the fly, so to speak. And that’s what researchers at the Universities Space Research Association at NASA Ames Research Center have been working on.

They have developed a plasma jet printer that uses plasma to spray tiny semiconductor materials on to substrates. The exciting news is that these materials can be “printed” onto textiles or paper, creating flexible electronic circuits. These can include sensors, which could be used to detect specific molecules including important biomarkers. The resulting structures are so tiny that they require X-ray spectroscopy to analyze their characteristics, including their chemical makeup. As it turns out, the voltage and the flow of the plasma jet have an impact on the quality of the circuits produced, and the researchers are working to refine the process so that they can produce the desired results consistently.

The plasma printing process has advantages over other approaches, including its ability to create extremely fine structures. And it works at low temperatures that won’t damage cloth or paper substrates. While it is designed for use by space travelers, it would appear that the technology could have plenty of Earth-bound applications as well.