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Beyond Plastic: New Technology Promises Greener 3-D Printing

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    Beyond Plastic: New Technology Promises Greener 3-D Printing
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    As 3-D printing revolutionizes manufacturing, companies are developing greener ways to 3-D print, creating new technologies to cut back on plastic waste and reduce manufacturers' carbon footprints.

    Dr. Joshua Pearce, a professor at Michigan Technological University, has worked to develop eco-friendly techniques. He's optimistic about the future environmental impact of 3-D printing, which has already helped build Barcelona's towering cathedral La Sagrada Familia and “robohands” for children.

    In a study last year, he created a “Recyclebot” to create plastic filament — the material 3-D printers use to create structures from digital designs — from recycled milk jugs, and found that using recycled materials at home to create filament used one fortieth the amount of energy it would take to create it commercially.

    Meanwhile, more companies are taking that same effort commercial. Traditionally, two types of filament are used for 3-D printing: acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA). Generally, ABS, a petroleum-based polymer, is less environmentally friendly than PLA, a biodegradable corn-based plastic, but now, some new, greener kinds of ABS filament are being made.

    Black Eyed Peas rapper will.i.am is behind one of those. The rapper turned tech guru said that after a concert in Costa Rica in 2007, he noticed a lot of waste left behind in the stands and was determined to do something about it. He's a strong believer in 3-D printing's potential. “Eventually 3D printing will print people," he told Dezeen Magazine.

    He's now the chief creative officer of 3-D printing company 3D Systems Inc., and he partnered with Coca-Cola on a project called EKOCYCLE in 2012 to create branded products made of recycled plastic waste like Coke bottles. His new 3-D printer, the $1,199 EKOCYCLE Cube, takes after Pearce’s Recyclebot and transforms cartridges of filament, each containing at least three plastic Coke bottles, into whatever a consumer designs. 

    Three-D printer reseller 3D Printlife presented the first environmentally friendly ABS filament in January. Its material breaks down into carbon dioxide and methane when consumed by bacteria in landfills, making it biodegradable like PLA filament, but just as durable as ABS plastic.

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    The company's vice-president of marketing Joel Rush said the company wanted to encourage companies to consider their carbon footprints. Every $59.99 spool it manufactures is made out of cardboard and comes with soil paper with seeds, so that consumers can sprout plants.

    Another 3-D printing filament maker is sourcing its ABS recycled plastic mostly from landfills. Chicago-based Dimension Polymers, which raised more than $20,000 on Kickstarter, was launching its $30 spools at the New York 3-D design show from April 13 to 17. Co-founder Gerald Galazin says the products could reduce toxins from petroleum-based production by 66 percent.

    But new 3-D printing technology might wipe out any need for recycled filament, especially if it succeeds.

    Carbon3D's CEO Joseph DeSimone debuted his new technology at a TED conference in Vancouver in March, and told Re/code the company expects to be commercializing in a year.

    His technology — known as CLIP, or Continuous Liquid Interface Production — is inspired by a scene in “Terminator 2": Like the T-1000 that comes up from metallic liquid in the movie, a 3-D printed object grows out of a pool of resin by using light and oxygen. The CLIP technology can work 25 to 100 times faster than traditional 3-D printers and can use a variety of materials. 

    At the rate 3-D printing technology is growing, experts say its will become faster and greener. Siemens predicts that 3-D printing will be 50 percent cheaper and 400 percent faster in the next five years. And Pearce points out that even now, 3-D printing has a crucial advantage over traditional manufacturing techniques: its relative lack of waste.

    In 2013 he conducted a life-cycle analysis that found 3-D printers used 41 to 64 percent less energy than traditional manufacturing machines — mostly, he said, because they created less waste than mass manufacturing. The more waste left over, the more energy is needed to melt it, he explained, whereas 3-D printing uses only the amount of material required to finish the product.

    “Even though your 3-D printer will use more energy per product, you are making a better product with less material,” he said.