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.
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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