For many years, the United States enjoyed a cost advantage for olefinic plastics because of lower prices for natural gas used to make feedstocks. It looks now like Brazil may become the country with a feedstock cost advantage because of its huge sugar cane crop. “We have needed more capacity in South America to meet growing demand for polyethylene,” says Diego Donoso, commercial director for basic and performance plastics in Latin America for Dow Chemical. “For the last two years we haven been studying alternative feedstocks.” Dow chose sugar cane as a feedstock for a projected plant for economic reasons. Sugar cane is “advantaged” any time the price of oil is over $40 a barrel, Donoso told me at the Dow Business Center at K 2007. Oil has been trading at record highs over $80 a barrel. Dow is teaming with Brazilian cane producer CrystalSev to build a 700 million lbs/yr polyethylene plant in Brazil—the biggest such plant ever contemplated. Construction is expected to begin next year and finish in 2011. The molecular structure of the finished plastic will be identical to the structure of plastics made from hydrocarbons. As such the material has no sacrifice in properties, and is fully recyclable in normal streams. The environmental argument is, of course, also compelling. Donoso told me that 4.4 pounds of carbon dioxide will be consumed for every pound of plastic created. Dow rejected any notion of making PE from corn-based ethanol because the carbon dioxide numbers did not work. Dow is the biggest producer of PE in the world. There’s another interesting note to this story. It fits into a Dow transformation process called “asset light” in which Dow reduces its equity footprint in basic plastics, whose price volatility has battered corporate profit predictability in the past. Dow and partner CrystalSev are each putting 50 percent equity in the new company that will make sugar-based PE in Brazil.
The 100% solar-powered airplane Solar Impulse 2 is prepping for its upcoming flight, becoming the first plane to fly around the world without using fuel. It's able to do so because of above-average performance by all of the technologies that go into it, especially materials.
As the 3D printing and overall additive manufacturing ecosystem grows, standards and guidelines from standards bodies and government organizations are increasing. Multiple players with multiple needs are also driving the role of 3DP and AM as enabling technologies for distributed manufacturing.
A growing though not-so-obvious role for 3D printing, 4D printing, and overall additive manufacturing is their use in fabricating new materials and enabling new or improved manufacturing and assembly processes. Individual engineers, OEMs, university labs, and others are reinventing the technology to suit their own needs.
For vehicles to meet the 2025 Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, three things must happen: customers must look beyond the data sheet and engage materials supplier earlier, and new integrated multi-materials are needed to make step-change improvements.
3D printing, 4D printing, and various types of additive manufacturing (AM) will get even bigger in 2015. We're not talking about consumer use, which gets most of the attention, but processes and technologies that will affect how design engineers design products and how manufacturing engineers make them. For now, the biggest industries are still aerospace and medical, while automotive and architecture continue to grow.
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