3D Printing the Future with Sustainable Biomass and Bacterial Glue

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The world is in a global environmental crisis due to release of captured carbon from transportation, electricity production, commercial use, residential use and deforestation. The cascading effects on ecosystems are causing more frequent heatwaves, droughts, floods, wildfires and storms. Another huge problem is plastic waste that is found not only every corner of the globe but now is starting to appear in every animal species.

One way to solve this problem is to use biomass, that is typically not considered usable, as a manufacturing feedstock. 3D printing is uniquely positioned to allow these waste streams to be upcycled and create products with value, great design and functionality.

Warming of the atmosphere and oceans is creating major effects on ecosystems that are unable to adapt or migrate leading to loss of plant and animal species. Higher temperatures are causing more frequent heatwaves, droughts, floods, wildfires and storms. In addition to these effects the world lost an average of 10 million hectares of forest per year from 2010 to 2020. This is equivalent to the size of South Korea or Portugal every year. Deforestation is a major driver of tree cover loss, especially in the tropics, where it accounts for more than half the total loss. It is hard not to be alarmist, but it all contributes to biodiversity loss, climate change and soil erosion.

The world is also drowning in a sea of plastic. It is found in every corner of the globe and a study released just this week claimed the average liter of bottled water contains an average or 240,000 particles of nanoplastic. We do not know how dangerous these materials are but they can pass through cellular membranes and get into tissues of mammals including people.

The solution is a bio-powered future using biomass and 3D printers. From sawdust generated during wood harvesting to furniture production, coffee grounds from every coffee shop, to the seaweed that washes up on beaches these materials can be used in Marvel Labs 3D printers. These materials when dried and ground and then formed into parts using binder jet 3D printers can replace a myriad of parts made from plastic. Our novel bacteria based binder creates parts with the strength of wood and utility of plastic directly from the printer.

One of the advantages of using biomass, apart from being readily available, is that often we can get paid to take the materials. For example a small coffee chain in New York pays $700 per month per store to have spent coffee grounds collected. The materials are easy to process often needing only a drying step and then grinding. They also have little wear impact on the moving parts of the 3D printer. Motors, rails and bearings are not subject to the damaging wear that occurs when using metal or ceramic powders. Reliability is increased and maintenance of machines is reduced. Our binder is made from bacteria and is one of the strongest natural adhesives known. It is stronger than cyanoacrylate superglues and is rivaled by only a few synthetics.

The most significant benefit, apart from design and functional properties, comes at the end of life for the parts as they are completely biodegradable. The binder together with the raw materials unlike plastics and resins commonly used in 3D printed parts can be made into compost for plants. The carbon in the products returns to the soil over time.

The potential for 3D printed biomass parts to replace commonly used plastic parts is huge. Products include items such as packaging, electronic housings for speakers, lighting, interior design components, and furniture. The carbon footprint of 1 kg of plastic is around 6 kg of carbon dioxide. Biomass derived products reduce the need for oil based plastics and harvesting of trees for lumber.

There are challenges however for 3D printing with biomass. There is ongoing research to scale up our bacterial binder for universal use for any powdered biomass material. The lifecycle for products made using our process will need to be determined. There maybe routine finishing required to maintain optimal performance similar to wood, leather, wool and other natural materials. There will be continuing collaboration between scientists, engineers designers and policymakers to create products and a societal framework for sustainable materials.

It is hard not to be alarmist with the many changes to climate, our environment and now our physiology that are increasing in number and magnitude. We have only begun to scratch the surface of the potential to replace plastics products with 3D printed biomass but there is urgency to our task. Nature has created innovative materials and structures that we plan to harness at Marvel Labs.

References:

Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2021

Scientists find about a quarter million invisible nanoplastic particles in a liter of bottled water, Seth Borenstein, AP News, January 8, 2024

Andy Jeffery, Co-founder and Head of Sustainability at Marvel Labs, will be participating at the upcoming Additive Manufacturing Strategies business summit in New York, February 6 to 8, 2024. Jeffery will be pitching Marvel Labs in the Start-up Pitches session.

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