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3D Printed Biocomposites Could Help Reduce Marine Plastic Pollution

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Concerns about the impact of plastic litter and microplastics in the oceans are at the forefront of environmental study. For decades, the marine environment has suffered from the degradation of fossil-based polymers – the vast majority of plastic products – which are transported by currents and accumulate on beaches, in the sea, and even on Arctic Sea ice. To turn the tides, bio-based polymer composites have emerged. This suitable replacement for fossil resources could serve the growing demand for marine composites, primarily driven by fish and seaweed farming, energy harvesting, pontoons, and more.

Enter SeaBioComp

Working on these composites is a European project called SeaBioComp. Created to address the challenge of making a renewable material that can reduce the ecotoxic impact of microplastics and withstand the long-term harsh marine environment, SeaBioComp has developed a flax-based thermoplastic biocomposite. The project has 3D printed several initial prototype products, including a fender and other port structures using the new material. Moreover, it has shown that polymers and composite materials made from a natural-sourced feedstock, such as biopolymers and biocomposites, are seen as a potential alternative to fossil-based polymers, but with lower environmental impacts, such as microplastic formation.

A selection of SeaBioComp demonstrator products for maritime applications.

A selection of SeaBioComp demonstrator products for maritime applications. Image courtesy of SeaBioComp.

Co-funded under the European Union’s Interreg 2 Seas program, SeaBioComp has been actively pursuing the creation of a durable bio-based composite for marine environments since 2019 with a budget of €4.1 million ($4.2 million). More than half of the funding comes from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), which has already financed other 3D printing-related projects in the region, including Portugal’s first robot for high-performance and large dimension metal 3D printing.

Led by Centexbel, a Belgian textile research organization, SeaBioComp is also developing analytical protocols to evaluate the long-term durability of its materials to reduce the ecological impact on the marine environment.

Project partners in the team, including research organizations, textile, composite specialists, universities, and cluster organizations, have worked together for the past three years to develop, mechanically test, and research several bio-based formulations using different manufacturing techniques. As a result, the consortium created two different kinds of biocomposites.

Forming Biocomposites

First, the project created a self-reinforced polylactide (PLA)-composite, which has been made into various non-woven and woven fabrics suitable for compression molding. Secondly, the team developed a novel flax-reinforced PLA or acrylic (PMMA) reinforced composite for use via the Resin Infusion under Flexible Tooling (RIFT) manufacturing process, compression molding, and additive manufacturing.

Following extensive testing of the mechanical properties of the various biocomposites developed by SeaBioComp, researchers and experts concluded that these materials “are close to and in some instances perform better than conventional non-bio-based composites,” such as sheet molded composite (SMC) currently in use in marine settings today. The novel bio-based products have been shown to use the same compression molding conditions as conventional products, and sometimes, the process cycle time can be shorter.

A selection of SeaBioComp demonstrator products for maritime applications.

A selection of SeaBioComp demonstrator products for maritime applications. Image courtesy of SeaBioComp.

Additionally, as part of the motivation to create a product that can help reduce the environmental impact on the oceans, early research in the project identified flax as the most suitable natural plant fiber to be used as reinforcement in the biocomposite. Flax absorbs much carbon dioxide during growth and cleans the soil through phytoremediation. This plant-based approach involves using plants to extract and remove elemental pollutants or lower their bioavailability in soil.

The project has also determined that these bio-based self-reinforced polylactic products are suitable for use in the marine environment from a durability and microplastic formation perspective. In fact, a new paper published in the Polymer Testing journal discusses the potential for bio-composites to be considered a promising material for sustainable marine applications.

Marine demonstrator for the SeaBioComp project.

Demonstrator for the SeaBioComp Interreg Europe project. Image courtesy of Poly Products via LinkedIn.

Countering the global sources of marine pollution has led the team at SeaBioComp to combine thermoplastic polymers, natural fibers, and 3D printing technologies. The results are technically complex designs and applications being produced for marine settings. Aside from a fender and other port structures, SeaBioComp has also used large-scale additive manufacturing techniques to create other semi-industrial demonstrators, including a boat pump and top cover.

3D Printing Biocomposites

In 2020, SeaBioComp revealed that it relied on an FDM printer built by Netherlands AM technology supplier CEAD and installed at industrial manufacturer Poly Products, also in the Netherlands. The machine can print very large products, making it an exciting technique for printing biocomposite outputs for marine applications as minor assembly is required once the complex geometries are printed.

CEAD's FDM large printing machine.

SeaBioComp used a CEAD FDM printer to demonstrate the use of bio-based thermoplastic composites in various maritime applications. Image courtesy of CEAD.

In addition to the eco benefits of the new material, 3D printing is also considered by SeaBioComp as an eco-efficient manufacturing process. As compared with traditional product manufacturing, the 3D printing of biopolymers has a large eco-efficiency because it doesn’t need molds, there is practically no production waste (such as trimming losses), it is compatible with the sustainable material developed by the project, and the 3D printed product can be recycled after its end-of-life.

As part of its cross-border approach and to ensure that its goals stay on track, SeaBioComp has combined an extensive network of academia, industry, and research organizations that could ensure its materials remain industrially relevant, including the University of Plymouth in England, cluster organization Marine South East, and the ARMINES research center in Paris, France.

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