Plastics made from sustainable resources, or plants, are at a tipping point, according to several speakers at special session at the annual technical conference (Antec) of the Society of Plastics Engineers in Milwaukee, WI. According to one research study cited, 40 percent of bioplastics will be used in durable applications in 2011, compared to just 2 per cent today. In the United States, in particular, plastics made from crops, usually corn, are mostly targeted for disposable packaging. As I’ve blogged before, that’s a joke since there are virtually no composting facilities that could handle the biodegradable packaging. The argument works OK for plastic bags that are thrown in the ocean or beside highways. But that’s hardly a reason to develop a new industry. Speakers at the SPE Antec, however, made the point that the argument is shifting from a solid waste viewpoint to a carbon footprint orientation. As a result, some experts feel demand will grow for “bioplastics” because of its potentially favorable position in the global warming debate. Japan has a law requiring greater use of bioplastics over the years, and Toyota among others has embraced the goals. The case is gaining a little strength as oil prices soar. It’s still a tough row to hoe, however. One reason is that bioplastics lack adequate mechanical properties for durable applications, such as cars. Toyota is blending bioplastic with oil-based plastic to boost properties. The other issue is that bioplastic will be significantly more expensive than oil-based plastic, even with sky-high oil prices. Efforts in the past to develop alternates have always collapsed when oil prices dropped. The other big obstacle is the feedstock problem. Use of corn in the United States has hiked food prices. At the Antec, a few experts argued that the real solution will be a switch to biomass that has no food value.
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.
The amount of plastic clogging the ocean continues to grow. Some startling, not-so-good news has come out recently about the roles plastic is playing in the ocean, as well as more heartening news about efforts to collect and reuse it.
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