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.
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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