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.
Artificially created metamaterials are already appearing in niche applications like electronics, communications, and defense, says a new report from Lux Research. How quickly they become mainstream depends on cost-effective manufacturing methods, which will include additive manufacturing.
SpaceX has 3D printed and successfully hot-fired a SuperDraco engine chamber made of Inconel, a high-performance superalloy, using direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). The company's first 3D-printed rocket engine part, a main oxidizer valve body for the Falcon 9 rocket, launched in January and is now qualified on all Falcon 9 flights.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and MIT have 3D-printed a new class of metamaterials that are both exceptionally light and have exceptional strength and stiffness. The new metamaterials maintain a nearly constant stiffness per unit of mass density, over three orders of magnitude.
Smart composites that let the material's structural health be monitored automatically and continuously are getting closer to reality. R&D partners in an EU-sponsored project have demonstrated what they say is the first complete, miniaturized, fiber-optic sensor system entirely embedded inside a fiber-reinforced composite.
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