University of Idaho Receives $4M NSF Grant To Study Recycled Wood for 3D Construction

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The University of Idaho announced that it has received $4 million from the National Science Foundation to research the reuse of waste material from home construction, especially wood, in 3D printing. Part of the NSF’s EPSCoR Research Infrastructure Improvement Program, the funding will be utilized by a team led by Michael Maughan, Ph.D, P.E., assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the university’s College of Engineering. Researchers from Auburn University will also be working with Maughan’s team on the project, which will receive just under a million dollars a year in funding through 2025. The team will be focusing on printing parts for 3D constructed homes, from floor panels to roofs, and the project will focus not only on the ecological sustainability of 3D printing with wood, but also heavily on life cycle assessment considerations typical to home construction in general.

Image courtesy of University of Idaho

In a university press release, Maughan summarized the project: “We’re developing a new composite material, using completely bio-based resources on a truly large scale. With this technology, houses and commercial buildings can be made entirely differently. We can push past climate change, mitigate impact on our environment and make better use of the natural resources we have.”

The engineering process that Maughan and his team have worked on involves taking waste wood and sawdust from mills and wood processing plants, combining the material with a binding agent, and then using 3D software and printers to design and produce the wood filament to specification for construction. The university has made innovating with wood a primary focus in recent years, not only to emphasize the manufacturing inventiveness of its faculty and students, but also to equally highlight the significance of the timber industry to the state’s economy. The school’s Idaho Central Credit Union Arena, which opened this month, has brought attention to the same priorities, as the university says it’s the first structure of its kind to be made entirely from engineered wood.

Talking about the arena, Jennifer Okerlund, executive director of the Idaho Forest Products Commission, said, “When we look at it, we see the amazing creativity of how we can utilize mass timber.”

With the research grant from the NSF, the University of Idaho will bring similar concepts it used in designing its new arena with engineered wood to the field of 3D printing homes (Image courtesy of University of Idaho Athletics)

When compared to plastics and even metals, 3D printing with wood is in more preliminary stages across the industry as a whole, but its development has increased in the past few years, notably including the purchase of the startup FORUST by Desktop Metals earlier in 2021. But perhaps more so than with any other material, the foremost priority for companies involved in 3D wood printing is ecological sustainability. Conventional manufacturing with wood, of course, has a two-way detrimental impact on carbon emissions, not only in adding carbon to the environment in the process, but also in removing trees which sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

This is only the latest in a number of recent projects that have announced a heightened focus on using recycled materials in 3D printing starting in 2022. Roboze recently announced its circular economy program that will start for customers next year, and 6K just purchased Specialty Metallurgical Products to double down on its efforts to 3D print metal using scrap material. Considering the multifaceted supply chain benefits of using recycled materials in 3D printing, we can only expect to see more of this sort of thing as the industry evolves.

The roof of the Idaho Central Credit Union Arena, constructed entirely with engineered wood (Image courtesy of University of Idaho News)

(Source: Construction Dive)

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