The biggest story in materials this year is sustainability. Producers and users alike are looking for plastics made from feedstocks that are not as environmentally damaging as petroleum. I’ve written extensively on ambitious programs in Japan as well as the major DuPont initiative. Now comes another big story: Dow Chemical Co. is building a world-scale polyethylene plant in Brazil using sugarcane-based ethanol as the feedstock. Dow’s partner is Crystalev, a major Brazilian ethanol producer. Expected to begin production in 2011, the facility will have a capacity of 350,000 metric tons annually.
This is a positive development on many fronts. Most importantly, sugar cane is a much more efficient source of biofeedstock than corn, which is used in North America. In fact, sugarcane is eight times more efficient as a feedstock than corn. Widespread use of corn as a plastic or fuel material also puts stress on global food supplies. It also makes no sense from an environmental perspective, given the amount of petroleum required to make ethanol.
On a molecular level, the new sugarcane-based material will be identical to current high-grade PE products made by Dow around he world from petroleum. In other words, it will be a drop-in replacement for applications including pipe, film, membranes and packaging. The new material will also be fully recyclable using current infrastructure. Dow also made pains to point out the new plant will not be built in a rainforest.
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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