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The AM Drilldown: Natural Gas & the Rising Price of 3D Printing Inputs

In the first installment of this series, I discussed the relationship between additive manufacturing (AM) and energy returned on energy invested (ERoEI). The crux of that article was that the recent rise of the AM sector should be viewed primarily as a part of the end of the cheap energy era. To start zooming in on more specific issues which exemplify that, the starkest, most significant current example involves the skyrocketing price of natural gas, and the relationship between that and the chemicals sector.

Natural Gas Prices Increase

The prices of crude oil products, mainly gasoline, have received the bulk of the attention in all the news media inflation discourse this past year. At the same time, though, natural gas prices have seen an even greater increase and appear even more resistant to downward pressures than the price of the two most significant global oil benchmark prices, West Texas Intermediate (WTI) and Brent Crude. Aside from the general, pandemic-related supply chain issues, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the rising cost of natural gas is arguably more responsible than any other single factor for the sustained high prices at every level of the economy for the last couple of years.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

As volatile as energy prices have been in the US, nations in the EU have seen far worse, a state-of-affairs that preceded the war in Ukraine, but which has of course been severely exacerbated by it. This is particularly due to frequent supply disruptions to the Nord Stream 1 natural gas pipeline, as well as the indefinite postponement to the operations of Nord Stream 2. Both pipelines run from Russia, under the Baltic Sea, to Germany.

The Price of Plastics Will Go up

Germany is the center of the global chemical industry, and is headquarters to many of the largest producers of polymers for the AM sector, including the largest, BASF (also the largest chemicals manufacturer period). By far, the chemical industry uses more natural gas than any other sector: in Germany, the chemical industry uses 14 percent of the nation’s natural gas, while all other sectors combined use about 22 percent. The relative numbers for the US are more or less the same. But, to reiterate, Germany is in quite a different geopolitical situation from the one the US is in, and its benchmark electricity price is up over 500% in the last year.

Image courtesy of BASF

Primarily, the chemicals industry uses such an abundance of natural gas because it is the main feedstock for the production of ammonia and methanol, among others. Thus, the higher the price of natural gas, the higher the price of polymers — which, since plastic is used for just about everything that’s sold, affects the price of just about everything.

Image courtesy of Alexandra Kanik, The Allegheny Front

The Relationship Between 3D Printing and Natural Gas

This is where AM comes in. Assuming that natural gas prices will stay at their historically high levels for the foreseeable future, polymers, too, will only continue to grow more expensive. Now, it can’t yet be said that, when using AM, fewer hydrocarbon inputs per item are required, compared to legacy manufacturing processes. On the other hand, AM already has the potential to greatly decrease the amount of goods manufactured that end up unsold, which, for companies making polymer-based end-use products, could ultimately offset the perpetually higher price of plastics. Nevertheless, within a shorter timeframe, the high prices could simply add to the volatility of a sector that’s trying to get off the ground amid a background of seemingly constant economic turmoil.

Recently, there was a story in the news about warnings from Germany’s chemical sector about the economic fallout from banning Russian energy suppliers. The week after the story broke, illustrating that the connection between higher natural gas prices and AM materials is far from just academic, or theoretical, Covestro, a German subsidiary of Bayer, sold its AM materials division to Stratasys, an Israeli company. According to Bloomberg, Israel’s natural gas production rose 22 percent in the first half of 2022.

To sum up, AM could eventually be an indispensable tool, not only in wasting as little plastic as possible, but also — hopefully — in creating as little new plastic as possible. Until that happens, higher energy prices will likely lead to further significant changes in AM materials markets. In my next article, I’ll focus on specific ways in which AM is changing the way fossil fuels are being extracted and refined.