Plastics made from renewable feedstocks, such as corn, hold an odd place in the engineering playbook. They don’t offer any engineering advantages, and, in fact, offer significantly less heat resistance and mechanical strength than their hydrocarbon brethren, which continue to improve in performance. They also have no economic advantage, and remain, significantly more expensive than hydrocarbon-based plastics, even with oil at $100+/bbl. Yet production plans for bioplastics are rapidly expanding, based on the idea they are good for the environment. Some cities are behind the push, such as San Francisco’s ban on polyethylene bags. That strategy is superficial since paper bags create significantly more air and water pollution, and cost ten times more than plastic bags. Such efforts, however, will create a market for compostable plastics. Fast food chains may use compostable plastics for forks and knives. Will bioplastics reduce our dependence on oil? Even that point is debatable given the energy costs required to create and transport biofeedstocks. And surges in grain prices may be an even bigger penalty than high oil prices. At least we can choose not to drive SUVs; we can’t choose not to eat.
The bans aimed at plastics generally lack technical understanding or context. If you’re looking for some plastic engineering insight, consider attending the Annual Technical Conference (ANTEC) of the Society of Plastics Engineers May 4-8 in Milwaukee. There will be a special session May 6 on “Advances in Polymers from Renewable Resources”. One keynote is: “Bioplastics: New Generation Polymers for Reducing Carbon Footprint and Improving Environmental Performance”, which will be delivered by Professor Ramani Narayan of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at Michigan State University. Dr. Narayan has put some real science into the carbon footprint debate. Other sessions will tackle nuts and bolds technical issues such as improving the heat performance of PLA. The session has a clear pro-bioplastics feel to it. But this is the place to hear the pitch. There will be plenty of plastics engineers in the audience to keep the presentations on target.
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.
Focus on Fundamentals consists of 45-minute on-line classes that cover a host of technologies. You learn without leaving the comfort of your desk. All classes are taught by subject-matter experts and all are archived. So if you can't attend live, attend at your convenience.