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 new compression molding compound material combines the light weight, strength, and rigidity of carbon fibers with the flexibility and lower cost of glass materials in a composite compatible with automotive production.
Plastic bearings are real and millions of them are in use doing heavy-duty jobs we used to think only metals could do. Some of Germany-based igus's bearings are traveling around the world as functional parts in a car to demonstrate what they can do.
Baxter showed off his 2.0-derived moves at ATX West this year. The big red guy still looks pretty much the same, but has some new abilities, mostly due to software. The research robot version is now being used in corporate R&D departments as a design platform.
End-production using 3D printing, including objects made of multiple materials in one pass, is getting closer to reality as we saw on the exhibit floor at the recent Pacific Design & Manufacturing Show.