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.
A lightweight electric urban concept car designed by several European companies weighs only 992 lb without its battery. It would have weighed 26.7 lb more if its windows were made of glass instead of the specially coated LEXAN polycarbonate resin from SABIC Innovative Plastics.
Skylar Tibbits' team in MIT's Self-Assembly Lab is now 4D printing self-assembling shapes made of programmable carbon composites and custom wood grain. The composites are being used in a sport car airfoil, and the wood grain is beautiful.
The NanoSteel Company has produced high-hardness ferrous metal matrix composite (MMC) parts using a new nanosteel powder in a one-step 3D-printing process. Parts are 99.9% dense, crack-free, and with wear resistance comparable to M2 tool steels.
The company that brought you 3D-printed eyeglasses has launched both an improved clear polymer material for 3D printing optical components and a high-speed, precision, 3D-printing process for making small- and medium-sized batches in a few days.
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