Penn State team places second in NASA 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge

September 05, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — An interdisciplinary Penn State team led by Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture faculty members Shadi Nazarian and José Duarte earned second place and a $150,000 prize in NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge, a Centennial Challenge competition established to develop the technology necessary to create shelters to support the human exploration of Mars.

Narrowed down from an initial entry pool of 77 teams, PennStateDen@Mars was one of only five teams who qualified to participate in the head-to-head competition held at Caterpillar Inc.’s Edward Demonstration and Learning Center in Peoria, Illinois. The participants had to 3D print structural habitat pieces between Aug. 23 and 26 that were evaluated and then crush-tested on site.

The goal of the 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge is to advance the additive construction technology needed to create sustainable housing on Earth and for deep space exploration.

The Penn State team, which included representatives from the departments of Architecture and Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP), worked on the project for the past year. Sven Bilén, professor of engineering design, electrical engineering, and aerospace engineering and head of SEDTAPP, was co-leader of the project with Nazarian, associate professor of architecture, and Duarte, Stuckeman Chair in Design Innovation and director of the Stuckeman Center for Design Computing. The other team leads were Aleksandra Radlińska, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering; Ali Memari, Bernard and Henrietta Hankin Chair of Residential Construction and director of the Pennsylvania Housing Research Center; and Nicholas Meisel, Emmert H. Bashore Development Professor and assistant professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering.

The team also included undergraduate and graduate students in Architecture and Engineering. Engineering undergraduates Andrew Przyjemski and Nathan Watson traveled with the faculty members to the competition, as well as Jamie Heilman, digital fabrication and specialized technologies coordinator in the Stuckeman School. The College of Agricultural Sciences contributed a truck and trailer to transport the large robot used for printing.

“The applications of the materials and techniques that we and our competitors have developed are many, including immediate possibilities for building with materials that are gentler to the environment, use indigenous and recyclable materials, and withstand harsh conditions here on Earth and beyond,” explained Nazarian.

The PennStateDen@Mars entry to the competition was based on previous research aimed at developing functionally graded materials and verifying the possibility of designing and constructing seamless buildings, which can have a significant impact on architectural language and building processes. They further developed additive-manufacturing technology to 3D print habitats using a specially formulated concrete made from materials that can be found on Mars.

Based on their expertise, the team members focused their efforts in three areas: development of a novel concrete formulation, development of the 3D printing processes, and design and development of the overall 3D printing system necessary to print large structures. The production of the geopolymer binder used in the formulation of the concrete designed by the team does not emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, unlike the production of Portland cement (the most common type of cement). Penn State’s considerable expertise in 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, was leveraged to transfer expertise with smaller-scale printers and their associated processes to the large-scale printing of concrete.

Nazarian's earlier research with a team of materials scientists, which resulted in development of innovative and graded material interfaces, would enable the design of seamless shelters and impermeable bonds between glass and geopolymer concrete to protect individuals and the climate inside the habitat. Duarte's previous research and knowledge of digital technology in the design and production of functionally graded materials has confirmed the possibility of designing and constructing seamless buildings through additive manufacturing using cement base as well as non-cementitious concrete. Together, Nazarian and Duarte will be assessing the impact of these combined technologies on architectural language and building processes through an interdisciplinary design studio during the fall 2017 semester.

For more information, visit

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 23, 2017