Skip to main content
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
Enjoy unlimited digital access
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
Canada’s most-awarded newsroom for a reason
$1.99
per week
for 24 weeks
// //

Alex Dobrianski, left, sitting for a photograph with his son Sergei Dobrianski, holds a model of the structure of their proposed entry in the Google Lunar X competition, in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday January 18, 2017.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

For Alex and Sergei Dobrianski, the building blocks of an upcoming revolution in the space industry are found in moon dust.

Over the past five years, the father-and-son team has been developing the technology to send a 3D printer to the moon that can extract and use the various fine-grained metals coating the lunar surface to build everything from satellites to computer processors.

"Our path is to establish on the lunar surface some kind of 3D-printing factory," said Alex, who was 35 when he came to Canada from Ukraine with his wife and three children. "We want to move all space production of any space equipment from Earth to the moon."

Story continues below advertisement

Alex's laboratory is in his home on one of the upper storeys of a downtown Vancouver high-rise. Space-themed posters pepper the walls and pieces of electronics equipment are scattered about the room.

"There is everything [on the moon] to produce what you need, except carbon, [which] will be the equivalent of gold," he said.

Metals available on the moon's surface include aluminum, titanium, magnesium, iron, silicon and calcium – all in oxidized form, he added.

Alex's son Sergei, 29, explained how the process of harvesting oxidized metals from lunar dust also releases oxygen, which can serve as rocket fuel.

"Our vision is to 3D print. But even before that happens I believe we'll be using those materials as a fuel depot," Sergei said. "Imagine if you could start utilizing those materials to refuel satellites that are now in space."

The catalyst for the project came from the $30-million Google Lunar XPRIZE, an international competition to reach the moon using exclusively private funding. To win, a team must land a rover on the lunar surface, travel 500 metres and send back high-definition video.

The Dobrianskis' Team Plan B was the only Canadian competitor among 16 groups shortlisted last summer for the competition. That list was reduced Jan. 24 to five teams that secured launch contracts to send their robots into space.

Story continues below advertisement

The Dobrianskis were not among the finalists, but Sergei said their company is pushing forward with new seed money and support from the Centre for Applied Research and Innovation at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

"Through the years we've decided that this is something we're going to focus on with or without the Google Lunar XPRIZE," he said, adding that the competition was invaluable for networking and recruitment.

Sergei credits his father's passion and commitment for much of the team's success.

"Alex has always had a drive to achieve the impossible. Always," his son said, smiling sheepishly.

"Any time you tell him something is impossible, he's going to go beet red and he's going to try and prove you wrong. Any time he hears, 'This is not a possibility. You cannot do this.' This actually mobilizes him."

The team's modest size has meant fewer resources, but has also spurred a need to be innovative and to pivot quickly in response to changing circumstances, Sergei said.

Story continues below advertisement

While the team has included up to 20 members at various times, at its core is a family affair, which Sergei said has both pros and cons.

"Open communication," Sergei said, laughing. "There's always zero filter with what we're doing, which is perfect, which is exactly what you want for any team, for any organization."

Alex reached for a black, nine-toothed cog, about four centimetres in diameter with a slightly pockmarked surface.

"Made actually inside a vacuum," he said, rotating the cog between his thumb and index finger.

"Little bit tough, like you can see, but this will be our first prototype for 3D-printing experiment."

Alex estimates it will take five to seven years before 3D printing arrives on the moon, and adds that the journey there still poses many challenges.

Story continues below advertisement

"You need to be enthusiastic. You need to be realistic. You need to have a little bit of luck," he said. "Enthusiastic. I would say that's the most important."

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies