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Sean T. Ross - Solar Forge

From lunar habitats to the work of J.R.R Tolkein, MA Material Futures winner Sean Ross explains the inspiration for his Solar Forge.

As soon as I heard the brief title - The Power of Light - my mind leapt to the European Space Agency's proposed lunar habitats. Their idea is to set up inflatable hubs on the surface of the moon and then release a fleet of solar sintering rovers. The rovers use a front-mounted scoop to gather moon dust and pile it over the inflated structures. Once a large enough layer has been deposited, the rovers concentrate sunlight into a small focal point, creating a high enough temperature to fuse the dust together into a rock shell that can offer insulation and protection from radiation. The process is similar to the method of 3D printing known as 'selective laser sintering'.

"As soon as I heard the brief title -  “The Power of Light” - my mind leapt to the European Space Agency's proposed lunar habitats."

Further research revealed two other projects of a similar ilk. The first is Studio Swine’s Gyrecraft where a solar array is constructed on-board a boat sailing through the Atlantic 'Gyre' (a large system of rotating ocean currents). The gyre traps man-made marine debris - often plastic pellets - which the team collect and repurpose. The onboard solar array focuses solar energy onto a central tube, heating the plastic pellets inside before extruding the melted plastic in the same manner as a Fused Deposition Modelling printer (the most widely used form of 3D printing according to livescience.com).

The second example is Markus Kayser’s 'Solar Sinter'. Using a Fresnel lens, the Solar Sinter focuses light from the sun to create temperatures of up to 1,600 degrees Celsius. Heat produced is strong enough to melt sand which Kayser can then use to create glass objects gradually, layer by layer.

The Solar Forge

"I decided that I wanted to create something obscure and beautiful, an artefact made unique by its method of production..."

For my project, I wanted to harness this kind of solar power through crystals. My first intention was to investigate how regolith (the layer of loose deposits covering the surface of solid rock) could be repurposed through solar sintering. I quickly discarded this idea though as it would have been very similar to Kayser's work. Instead I decided to create something obscure and beautiful, an artefact made unique by its method of production. J. R. R. Tolkien’s book 'The Silmarillion' came to mind. In the story, Fëanor creates three jewels of such immense splendour that they become the envy of the Gods. I thought there would be something poetic about trying to use crystals to create gems. To that end, I explored methods of creating artificial gemstones and found that the flame fusion method could work for rubies or sapphires.

I contacted Tom Chatham, the CEO of artificial gemstone company Chatham Inc. who confirmed that creating gemstones with a solar forge should be possible as long as I can reach the required 2,000 degrees Celsius.

Different stages in the creation of the parabolic mirror for the Solar Forge
Solar Forge construction, Sean Ross (MA Material Futures) Photo: Sean Ross

The solar furnace designs I found online all used plastic Fresnel lenses taken from wide screen televisions. These lenses have both a large surface area (which captures light) and a small focal point which can reach temperatures of between 1,000 and 1,500 degrees Celsius. These designs would not have worked for my Solar Forge however as it would have been very difficult to create a single lens of this type from Swarovski crystal and I needed to reach higher temperatures. Instead I designed my Solar Forge to use a combination of parabolic mirrors (made from small mirror backed crystals on satellite dishes) and a small glass Fresnel lens.

The large, reflective satellite faces the sun directly and redirects as much sunlight as possible up into the second, smaller dish. This dish then reflects the light back, passing through the glass Fresnel lens. It is at this final focal point that the crucible will be held for the solar fusion to take place.

If my Solar Forge is unable to obtain the required temperature then I will attempt to fuse quartz (1,600 degrees Celsius) or igneous rock to create obsidian (900 degrees Celsius). As this method doesn’t require an enclosed space or heating elements, the process should be less vulnerable to impurities, possibly making superior stones. It also means I can add impurities of my own to create all-new combinations. An example of this could be melting different metals into liquid obsidian.

Further research

European Space Agency's proposed lunar living spaces
Image: European Space Agency

European Space Agency

Learn more about the ESA' proposed lunar landscapes

A Solar Extruder in use on the deck of a ship
Image: Studio Swine

Gyrecraft

Crafting objects at sea with the Solar Extruder

Solar sintering used to create 3D objects from sand
Image: TED Talks

Markus Kayser at TEDxGhent

Solar powered 3D printing in the desert