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Creative ways 3D printing is being used for sustainable ends

As we have seen and will continue to explore in our AM Focus this month, there are many facets to the topic of Sustainability within additive manufacturing. On the one hand, additive manufacturing opens up opportunities for more sustainable processes in many industries through the production of design-optimized and lightweight parts. Due to its additive nature, the technology also tends to result in minimal material waste. On the other hand, it is important to consider how manufacturing operations within AM have an ecological impact and how they can be improved. Beyond the industrial side of AM, there are also many ways in which 3D printing and sustainability have become linked, in large part thanks to the ingenuity of visionaries who understand the need for ecological solutions in all parts of our lives.

Below are some of the most captivating ways that 3D printing has been employed to address environmental issues we face and push forward a more sustainable future for our planet. These and many more AM-related sustainability issues will also be covered in our upcoming eBook on Sustainability. Stay tuned for more!

3D printing sustainable
The New Raw has worked with a town in Greece to transform old fishing nets into 3D printed installations

Repurposing plastic waste

Plastic pollution is a massive problem around the globe, and virtually every type of ecosystem has been impacted by it, though perhaps none more than our oceans. Plastic consumer waste, as well as industrial byproducts have entered the world’s aquatic ecosystems with devastating effect. Evidently, an issue of this scale mandates a large-scale solution, but today there are at least several smaller initiatives aimed at taking plastic waste out of nature and transforming it into usable goods. A number of these projects have integrated 3D printing into their work, transforming plastic waste from the ocean (or retrieved before it ends up in the ocean) into 3D printable materials

One project, spearheaded by Rotterdam-based design studio The New Raw, has collected abandoned synthetic fishing nets in Greece and transformed them into a series of 3D printed seashells and household items. The same group has also 3D printed public furniture and installations in Thessaloniki using plastic household waste. Another notable project, launched by Plastic Bank, seeks to transform millions of kilograms of plastic waste that would otherwise end up in the ocean into currency for developing communities. The plastic waste can be transformed into usable products using 3D printing, lengthening the life-cycle of the material.

Preserving ecosystems

3D printing sustainable
The world’s largest 3D printed coral reef was submerged in the Maldives

The globe’s coral reefs, some of the richest and most diverse ecosystems on the planet, are under serious threat due to global warming. When the temperature of water in the coral reef rises, it causes a phenomenon called bleaching, in which the living coral rejects the algae that lives inside its tissues and provides it with energy. This harmful process disrupts the symbiotic relationship of the two organisms and has drastic effects on the many other species that rely on the coral and algae for sustenance and protection.

In the midst of this dire situation, 3D printing technologies have offered a small glimmer of hope. Several initiatives are now exploring the use of 3D printing to create coral-inspired structures that can be placed in aquatic environments to encourage the growth of natural coral and sustain the underwater species that depend on it. A group based out of Melbourne, Australia, has been behind a number of projects, including the world’s largest 3D printed coral reef which was submerged in 2018 at the Summer Island Maldives resort. The artificial reef consists of hundreds of ceramic and concrete modules made from 3D printed molds, which are designed to look and feel like real coral.

Design studio Emerging Objects has also initiated its own work in this area in cooperation with Boston Ceramics and SECORE. Together, they are developing a new generation of 3D printed settlement substrates that meet coral larvae’s needs and fulfill requirements for effective reef restoration. Even more recently, a research team from Cambridge University and the University of California San Diego has demonstrated the ability to 3D bioprint coral-like structures that are capable of growing microscopic algae.

Localized construction

The construction industry is one of the biggest culprits in humans’ environmental impact on the planet. Not only does it often infringe upon natural ecosystems, but its materials and equipment are also environmentally taxing. One of the most ubiquitous construction materials, cement has actually been called the most destructive material on Earth. According to a report in The Guardian, if the cement industry were a country, it would follow only China and the U.S. for carbon dioxide emissions.

3D printing sustainable
WASP’s TECLA project in Bologna, Italy is making progress

Having said that, cement is a widely used material and is, quite literally, the foundation of our societies, so there is a need for some truly innovative thinking to help solve the environmental problem the material poses. Construction 3D printing could have the potential to shift the construction industry on the whole to a more sustainable place, though we are still far away from a widespread adoption of the technology. We want to highlight some cutting edge projects that, at the very least, show us possible avenues forward.

3D printing company WASP has been at the forefront of sustainable 3D printed construction with its TECLA project, being built just outside of Bologna, Italy. The project consists of building a sustainable habitat using the company’s Crane WASP 3D printer and local materials, which are reusable and recyclable. The material was developed in collaboration with construction materials company Mapei and has been tested for structural integrity. The TECLA project, which was slated for completion this year, aims to demonstrate the potential of adapting local building materials, like clay, into printable construction materials. 

California-based design studio Emerging Objects has undertaken a project that deals with a similar topic in a different way. The group has 3D printed a series of huts made from mud-based materials and inspired by the history of the Rio Grande river. The project, called Mud Frontiers, is the team’s latest exploration of using indigenous natural materials for construction and design applications.

Biodegradable materials

MIT Mediated Matter Aguahoja
MIT Mediated Matter Group’s Aguahoja I installation made from a biodegradable material

Another interesting area in which 3D printing and sustainability are tied is in the development of eco-friendly materials. I should specify that while there are many bio-based 3D printing materials on the market, such as PLA, I want to specifically highlight materials that are biodegradable. This specific niche of 3D printing materials is largely occurring at a research level, and some of the projects that have come out are really fascinating.

MIT’s Mediated Matter Group is behind some of the boundary-pushing work in materials. Specifically, it is developing a technology for 3D printing water-based biopolymer composites that are based on naturally derived and abundant materials, including cellulose, chitosan, pectin and calcium carbonate. These materials, derived from trees, insects, apples and bones, are combined with high spatial resolutions to create highly tunable, biodegradable composites. The materials, which degrade when exposed to water, have been used to produce ephemeral installations, including Aguahoja I and II. Neri Oxman, the founding director of the MIT Mediated Matter Group, recently addressed the topic of material ecology in a Q&A with MOMA.

On another front, a researcher from the University of Toronto made headlines earlier this year for successfully transforming used cooking oil from McDonald’s into a high-resolution and biodegradable 3D printing resin. The material showcases the potential of using waste materials like used cooking oil to produce 3D printing materials that are not only more eco-friendly than synthetic alternatives but also cheaper to produce.

We’d also like the highlight the fact that several 3D printing materials companies are focusing on the creation of more sustainable products that are either made from industrial byproducts or are recyclable. Many powder AM materials can be effectively recycled and reused in the 3D printer, while plastic filament can also be reprocessed and reused in many cases. Ultimately, the vision is to have as much of a circular economy for 3D printing materials as is possible.

An inspiring cause

Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg when looking at creative ways 3D printing is helping to further a sustainable agenda. Designers, engineers and students around the globe have found small and big ways to reduce carbon footprints with the help of 3D printing. In my time writing about additive manufacturing technologies, these types of projects have kept be inspired and continue to show me how an innovative spirit and a versatile technology can really go a long way.

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