How 3D Printing Can Save Our Planet

3d printed item
Photo: Creative Tools
3d printed item
Photo: Creative Tools

Star Trek science fiction may be closer to reality, as three-dimensional printers may turn our junk into mobile phone cases, tasty treats, and even space ships.

Fans of the famous 1960’s Star Trek series are already familiar with the television show’s replicator technology, which replicated tools, spare parts, and even food and drinks.

Technology hasn’t gone so far as to instantly combine molecular matter into our every wish, as the replicators in the Star Trek universe have. However, 3D printing technology is making it possible to manufacture tools, spare parts and even food – much of it from wasted materials recycled in the printing process.

Well, maybe not recycled in the printing process of food – yuck!

Filabot 3D Printer
Filabot 3D Printer

Researchers at Michigan Technological University have successfully been able to shred and melt old plastic into the “ink” used in their Filabot 3D printer, to print physical objects. The Filabot can shred 4-inch pieces of thermoplastics such as ABS, HDPE and LDPE, and then melt it down before funneling it through changeable nozzles. The researchers say they can’t use PVC plastics or vinyl because of their toxicity, but do say their 3D printer uses a fraction of the energy to recycle the plastics it can use, to produce the filament used in the printing process.

Imagine feeding your old smartphone case into a 3D printer at home, and getting a brand new smartphone case which you designed.

Or you could turn any compatible plastic item just lying around taking up space, into just about anything else you need, be it a technological fashion statement, a tool, or a toy.

Recycling plastics for use in 3D printers removes these plastics from the waste stream, but also makes the technology more economical.

Current 3D printing devices are expensive, running in price from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars, just for the actual printer. Then you have to add the cost of the materials that printer uses to print with, typically a plastic resin, which costs about $50 to $500 per kilogram depending on the type.

Last May, researchers from a handful of Asian and American-based companies spent six days at a conference trying to figure out if 3D printers could go green. The researchers concluded that ultimately, to make the technology completely environmentally friendly, the filaments used in the printing process must also be biodegradable as well as recycled.

Well, you can’t please everyone – however if you have a sweet tooth you may find a use for 3D printers.

ChefJet 3D Printed Food
ChefJet 3D Printed Food

For about $1,300 you can get the Foodini, a 3D printer which can print pasta, chocolate, and even a whole pizza. Later this year, ChefJet will launch a 3D printer which creates sugar-based geometric shapes, which can be used to top a cake, or as funky candy on their own. The ChefJet spreads fine layers of sugar, and then uses an inkjet print head to paint that sugar with water. This recrystallizes the sugar into a hardened 3-dimensional object. The ChefJet has two models, the smaller version is $5,000 and the larger cake-sized version will be about $10,000 when it is released later this year.

3D printers are a long way from providing our every need with environmentally friendly materials. The technology is improving, and they have printers that use recycled plastics, and even foodstuffs like sugar, but we don’t see 3D printers which can combine filament types. How many things around your home are made solely from plastic?

In order for 3D printers to be useful in the home, they must be able to use multiple materials, to enable us to make the items we need. It’s great to be able to design and print a remote control to replace the one the dog ate. However, the remote control has various metals and other components, which need to be printable too, not just the plastic resins which make the case and the buttons.

Leave it to NASA to find a use for 3D printers that is out of this world.

The American government’s National Aeronautics Space Agency (NASA) is experimenting with 3D printers that use laser-melted titanium and nickel-chromium powders to build space-strength metal objects.

Last August, NASA successfully tested a metal 3D printed rocket, which generated 20,000 pounds of thrust – that’s ten times more powerful than the space agency’s previous 3D printed rocket attempts. NASA says the 3D printed rocket is more cost effective to build and maintain, because it is only made of two components, versus the 115 components of a traditional rocket of the same size.

Perhaps that is part of the solution to greening our world with 3D printers, it isn’t just about using recycled materials in the printing process, but also changing the way we design and build objects so they use fewer components as well. We need to think leaner, to reduce what we consume.

NASA is also testing 3D printed small satellites that can be launched from the International Space Station and transmit data back to Earth.

By printing these objects in space, it saves enormous fiscal and other resources, as they don’t have to be made here on Earth and launched into space on expensive rockets.