There was plenty of talk about biodegradable plastics from environmentalists in the 1990s. All the talk was about packaging, and much of the discussion lacked scientific grounding, even though it was embraced by many school science departments on the first one or two Earth Days. Biodegradability actually made little sense for much packaging because landfills are anaerobic – that is, they allow no oxygen or moisture, which are required for the degradation process. Degradation would allow toxins to leak into aquifers.
Look for biodegradability to move back into the forefront, however, and this time for engineering applications. New research projects, particularly outside the USA, are aimed at development of mechanically stronger plastics, as well as reinforcing fibers, that are made from plants. One reason is environmental: computer or car parts made from the materials would eventually biodegrade. The other is economic: the new materials may be more cost-effective than oil-based plastics given the price trajectory of hydrocarbons. One key player to watch: NetComposites which is leading a UK project valued at more than $1.5 million to develop biodegradable structural prototypes.
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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