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.
An MIT research team has invented what they see as a solution to the need for biodegradable 3D-printable materials made from something besides petroleum-based sources: a water-based robotic additive extrusion method that makes objects from biodegradable hydrogel composites.
Alcoa has unveiled a new manufacturing and materials technology for making aluminum sheet, aimed especially at automotive, industrial, and packaging applications. If all its claims are true, this is a major breakthrough, and may convince more automotive engineers to use aluminum.
NASA has just installed a giant robot to help in its research on composite aerospace materials, like those used for the Orion spacecraft. The agency wants to shave the time it takes to get composites through design, test, and manufacturing stages.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is working with architects Foster + Partners to test the possibility of using lunar regolith, or moon rocks, and 3D printing to make structures for use on the moon. A new video shows some cool animations of a hypothetical lunar mission that carries out this vision.
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