In 2014, we ran a story about how 3D printing could save our planet. By then, 3D printing technology was still in its infancy. The machines themselves were still behemoths and pricey.
More than eight years later and 3D printing has come such a long way that today we use it to print anything from replacement parts for machines to entire buildings and body parts.
But that’s just the beginning. Despite the early challenges, such as developing Eco-friendly 3D printing materials, the technology has advanced to such an extent that today we can literally print food and fully functioning body organs.
Perhaps this technology can help us solve a few of the ecological problems afflicting our planet right now, such as waste in construction, materials recycling, ocean pollution, etc. It’s not a perfect tool, but it’s an option worth having in our climate change-fighting toolkit.
But what exactly is 3D printing?
3D Printing Explained
Three-dimensional printing (3D Printing), also known as additive manufacturing, is a process of making three-dimensional solid objects of almost any size and shape from a digital model.
The creation of a 3D-printed object is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes.
3D printing is the opposite of subtractive manufacturing, where parts are created by machining or removing material. 3D printing enables you to produce complex (functional) shapes using less material than traditional manufacturing methods.
It also allows for decentralized production, bringing manufacturing closer to the point of need.
Unlike other forms of rapid prototyping, such as CNC machining, 3D printing can create complex geometry with internally embedded voids, passages, intricate channels, and smooth exterior surfaces without the need for secondary machining processes.
These attributes make 3D printing an enabling technology with applications across many industries. Some examples include aerospace and aviation, automotive, medical/dental, and consumer products.
3D printing has been around since the 1980s, but it wasn’t until the early 21st century that the technology became more widely used and affordable for consumers.
There has been a boom in the 3D printing industry in recent years, with new companies and start-ups popping up worldwide. 3D printers are now used to create everything from medical implants to eyeglass frames to food.
3D printing technology is rapidly evolving, and its capabilities are constantly expanding. New materials with unique properties are being developed and made available for use in 3D printers.
Combined with advances in software and hardware, there are now virtually limitless possibilities for us to produce using this technology.
Here are some of the nifty ways 3D printing is solving some of our most intractable environmental problems.
3D Printing vs. Climate Change & Environmental Degradation
1. Reducing waste
One of the key advantages of 3D printing is that it reduces waste. This is especially true in industries notorious for massive carbon footprints, such as construction and manufacturing.
Traditional construction methods often produce a large amount of waste material, as builders must account for errors and oversights. In contrast, 3D printing is highly precise, meaning there is very little material waste.
Moreover, 3D-printed buildings can be designed to be disassembled and recycled, reducing waste.
Studies have shown that 3D printing can help to reduce carbon emissions by up to 50% and reduce waste by up to 90%, making it a highly efficient way to produce parts and components.
By allowing products to be made on-demand, using only the amount of material needed, 3D printing can significantly reduce the amount of waste generated by these industries drastically. In addition, 3D-printed buildings tend to be more energy-efficient than traditional structures, reducing carbon emissions.
As more businesses and organizations adopt 3D printing, we can expect a significant reduction in waste and carbon emissions across various industries.
2. Recycling materials
3D printing allows us to recycle materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. In fact, a significant proportion of the filament used in 3D printers is made from recycled plastic.
Plastic waste is melted and extruded into filaments used to print new objects, meaning we can reduce our reliance on virgin materials. Not only does this help to conserve resources, but it also helps to mitigate climate change.
The manufacturing process for virgin plastic generates significant greenhouse gas emissions. By using recycled materials, we can help reduce these emissions and slow the rate of climate change.
Additionally, by recycling plastic, we can help to reduce plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is a significant problem facing our planet, and 3D printing technology is helping us to address this problem sustainably.
In addition, 3D printing can use biodegradable materials, such as PLA (polylactic acid), made from cornstarch or sugar cane, making the technology more sustainable.
3. Cleaning oil spills and ocean pollution
Ocean pollution is a significant environmental issue of our time, caused by different factors, including oil spills.
Oil spills have devastating consequences for marine life and the environment making it critical to find ways to clean them up quickly, effectively, and sustainably.
3D printing technology has offered a new way to clean up oil spills and other ocean pollution. This innovative method uses various materials, including recycled plastic, to create long-lasting floating barriers.
The barriers are placed around the perimeter of the spill, and they work to contain the oil and prevent it from spreading.
Alternatively, the technology has been harnessed by some companies and organizations to create oil-absorbent booms used to clean up oil spills. The booms are made from a type of highly absorbent plastic that can soak up large quantities of oil. Once the oil is absorbed, the boom is collected, and oil is extracted for recycling.
This process is much faster and more efficient than traditional methods of cleaning up oil spills, and minimizes the impact on the environment.
As the world continues to grapple with the issue of ocean pollution, 3D printing technology is likely to play an increasingly important role in offering solutions.
5. Creating energy-efficient buildings
3D printing technology is increasingly vital in constructing energy-efficient and net-zero buildings. The technology cuts waste, saves time, and lowers overall costs by allowing for the rapid and accurate fabrication of building components.
3D-printed buildings can be designed to take advantage of natural lighting and ventilation, reducing energy consumption. We are also using the technology to create more efficient cooling and heating systems and develop new insulation materials to improve a building’s thermal performance.
As the technology advances, even more energy-saving applications will likely come to reality, making 3D printing an essential tool for developing sustainable solutions to our climate change problem.
5. Printing solar panels
There has been an increasing focus on finding renewable energy sources in recent years. One of the most promising alternatives is solar power.
Solar panels can convert sunlight into electrical energy, making them a clean and sustainable power source. However, traditional solar panels are often bulky and inefficient.
3D technology is being used to produce thinner, lighter, and more efficient solar panels. By printing solar cells onto thin sheets of plastic, manufacturers can create solar panels that are less than a quarter of the thickness of traditional panels.
As a result, we can use 3D-printed solar panels in a wider range of applications, from portable electronic devices to vehicles and aircraft.
In addition, 3D-printed solar panels are more efficient at converting sunlight into electrical energy. The latest data shows that they have an efficiency rating of over 20%, compared to just 15% for traditional panels. This means that 3D-printed solar panels can generate more power with less material.
As the technology develops, 3D-printed solar panels will likely play an increasingly critical role in the fight against climate change.
Giving animals a 2nd chance
Need I say more?
These are just a few of the ways that 3D printing is helping to save our planet. As this technology matures, we can expect even more inventive ways to use it for the benefit of the environment.