Plastic for 3-D Printers May Become Eco-friendly

February 18,2016

WASHINGTON— As if we didn’t have enough of it, the new must-have gadget - the consumer-grade 3-D printer - works with plastic. Researchers in Belgium say they have developed a new environmentally-friendly plastic, suitable not only for 3-D printers, but also for medicinal use.

Since the early 1980s, 3-D printers have evolved from highly sophisticated lab instruments into affordable consumer items, enabling their owners to create their own increasingly complex designs.

Some futurologists see this as the beginning of the third industrial revolution, but environmentalists fear that the last thing the world needs is more nearly immortal plastic objects in landfills and oceans.

The main culprit is non-biodegradable petroleum-based plastic. There are environmentally friendly alternatives like polylactic acid plastic, or PLA, based on sugar from maize and sugarcane -- but they are more expensive.

Michiel Dusselier, a researcher at the University of Leuven, said scientists have found a way to manufacture PLA faster and cheaper than before.

“Instead of a two-step process currently, it's a one-step process. Our process runs about 100 degrees centigrade lower in temperature and our productivities, which is kind of how much product can you make per volume of reactor per hour, are much higher and our product is also much cleaner, so we don't make side products,” said Dusselier.

PLA is one of the few types of plastic suitable not only for 3-D printers but for some biodegradable medical items such as suture threads.

“I think there will now be much more players in the market giving you the product at much lower prices and I think this will maybe really be the start of the PLA into the bio-plastic business,” said Bert Sels, a professor at the University of Leuven.

Although PLA is not suitable for all applications, a petrochemical company is already developing the new process for mass production, raising hopes that more plastic products will soon be made of biodegradable chemicals.