One of the weirder materials developments from the economic slowdown is a shortage of sawdust. Prices are up some 25 percent in the past two years, if you can get it. Sawdust is not normally considered an engineering material, but it’s often used as an additive for plastic compounds that cover steering wheels and dashboards. Demand for wood plastic composites has grown dramatically and is close to a billion pounds this year, mostly for construction applications. Composites are typically close to half wood flour and high-density polyethylene, with a smattering of other additives such as stabilizers and pigments. Wood plastic composites are favored for automotive applications because they have a lower specific gravity than compounds made with other inorganic materials. They also give an “organic” look and are considered environmentally friendly. The new economics, however, surely will slow penetration. The reason is the slowdown in house construction, which is slowing timber operations. The weakness of the US dollar versus the Canadian dollar also is having an impact.
Artificially created metamaterials are already appearing in niche applications like electronics, communications, and defense, says a new report from Lux Research. How quickly they become mainstream depends on cost-effective manufacturing methods, which will include additive manufacturing.
SpaceX has 3D printed and successfully hot-fired a SuperDraco engine chamber made of Inconel, a high-performance superalloy, using direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). The company's first 3D-printed rocket engine part, a main oxidizer valve body for the Falcon 9 rocket, launched in January and is now qualified on all Falcon 9 flights.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and MIT have 3D-printed a new class of metamaterials that are both exceptionally light and have exceptional strength and stiffness. The new metamaterials maintain a nearly constant stiffness per unit of mass density, over three orders of magnitude.
Smart composites that let the material's structural health be monitored automatically and continuously are getting closer to reality. R&D partners in an EU-sponsored project have demonstrated what they say is the first complete, miniaturized, fiber-optic sensor system entirely embedded inside a fiber-reinforced composite.
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