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.
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.
If there's one thing 3D printing's good for, it's customization. New Balance Athletic Shoe Company has begun using 3D printing to make customized spike plates for its running shoes made for members of its Team New Balance runners. They provide better traction and shave off a tiny bit of weight.
Two teams, one based in the US and one in Europe, have 3D printed space-worthy support structures for satellite antenna arrays. These aren't prototypes: they're fully functioning antenna supports that will operate while exposed to the harsh temperatures and radiation of outer space.
Focus on Fundamentals consists of 45-minute on-line classes that cover a host of technologies. You learn without leaving the comfort of your desk. All classes are taught by subject-matter experts and all are archived. So if you can't attend live, attend at your convenience.