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.
Last week, the bill for reforming chemical regulation, the TSCA Modernization Act of 2015, passed the House. If it or a similar bill becomes law, the effects on cost and availability of adhesives and plastics incorporating these substances are not yet clear.
The latest crop of coating and sealant materials and devices has impressive credentials. Many are designed for tough environments with broad operating temperature ranges, and they often cure faster, require fewer process steps, and produce less waste.
A new program has been proposed for testing and certify 3D printing filaments for emissions safety. To engineers who've used 3D printers at home this is a no-brainer. It's from a consumer on Kickstarter, and targets use in homes and schools.
For the last 50 years, the Metal Powder Industries Federation (MPIF) has sponsored an awards competition for creative solutions to designing and fabricating near-net-shape parts using powder metal (PM) technologies. Here are the seven Grand Prize winners of the 2015 contest.
Graphene 3D Lab has added graphene to 3DP PLA filament to strengthen the material and add conductivity to prints made with it. The material can be used to 3D print conductive traces embedded in 3D-printed parts for electronics, as well as capacitive touch sensors.
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.