How One Day Everything Could Be Recycled

Mix 3-D printers and biomimicry and what do you get? Products that are as strong, resilient, versatile—and biodegradable—as most things in nature

Bionic ear
One bionic ear, fresh off the printer. Photo courtesy of Princeton University

Chances are you’ve heard about the Texas company that recently announced it was able to produce a working handgun on a 3-D printer. After assembling the gun out of printed plastic parts, the firm’s founder, Cody Wilson, took it out to a shooting range and successfully fired some .380 caliber bullets. He calls his creation “The Liberator.”

Chances are you haven’t heard about the 3-D printed working bionic ear made by Princeton and Johns Hopkins scientists. Or the University of Michigan researchers who used a 3-D printer to produce a plastic splint that likely saved the life of a baby with a rare condition that caused his windpipe to collapse. Or the company called The Sugar Lab. It creates amazingly elaborate–and edible–sugar structures on, yes, a printer.

The truth is, almost any business that makes a product is probably weighing how 3-D printing–also known as additive manufacturing–fits into its future. Ford already is using the technology to print cylinder heads, brake rotors and rear axles for test vehicles. In fact, production time for some parts has been shaved by 25 to 40 percent. And engineers at Mattel are using 3-D printers to create parts of virtually every type of toy that it manufactures, from Hot Wheels cars to Barbie dolls.

If you’re still not buying into the notion that 3-D printing is finally, after 30 years, going mainstream, consider this: Last month Staples became the first major U.S. retailer to start selling 3-D printers. And one more tidbit: Amazon just launched an online 3-D printer store.

Nature’s way
It’s easy to get carried away with the idea that 3-D printing will change everything, that one day you’ll never have to go to an auto parts store or a toy store or a hardware store since you’ll be able to print out whatever you need. Not so fast. For starters, think about the liability issues that would come with installing car parts you printed at home.

That said, Janine Benyus thinks that 3-D printing presents a rare opportunity to profoundly change how we make things. Benyus is founder of the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute--that’s a reference to the 3.8 billion years life has been adapting on Earth–and she knows as well as anyone how much can be learned from nature. So, asks Benyus, why not take advantage of this moment in technological evolution to see how products can be created to better mimic the natural world? And what would it take to ensure that everything made on a 3-D printer is recyclable?

They’re questions she and other scientists will tackle later this week at the first Biomimicry Global Conference in Boston. During that discussion, Benyus will likely spend some time talking about potato chips bags.

They seem so simple, but as Benyus likes to point out, every bag is actually seven distinct layers, each made of a different material–one for waterproofing, one for excluding oxygen, one for inking, etc. Altogether, a potato chips bag comprises as many as 350 different polymers. By contrast, notes Benyus, a beetle’s shell is made of one material–chitin–but it’s strong, waterproof, allows air to pass through it and can change colors.

The challenge now, she notes, is to get the 3-D printer industry look to nature for inspiration. Says Benyus:

“Nature works with five polymers. Only five polymers. In the natural world, life builds from the bottom up and it builds in resilience and multiple uses. What would it be like to use only five polymer classes to build everything?”

Benyus’ focus is on rallying experts in her field to design biomimetic digital structures for materials that when printed, will have the same kind of strength, toughness and flexibility so common in substances in the natural world. And once a product’s life is over, it could be broken down and fed back into the printer to take shape as something new.

“We rarely get opportunities like this. This is our opportunity to get very close to how nature works,” said Benyus. “Are we going to address this? Or are we going to build bigger landfills?”

3-D visions

Here are a few more recent 3-D printer innovations:

  • Hold the toner: NASA has contracted with a Texas firm to develop a 3-D printer that can make pizzas in space. The company landed the contract, in part, because it has already built a printer that can print chocolate chips on to a cookie.
  • It’s alive!: A San Diego company recently announced that it has created on a 3-D printer samples of liver cells that function just as they would in a human. The 3-D cells were able to produce some of the same proteins as an actual liver does and interacted with each other and with compounds as they would in your body.
  • Go print up your room: Designers Benjamin Dillenburger and Michael Hansmeyer are building an entire room out of sandstone shapes created on a printer. The ornate room, which has been described as a “cross between an alien skeletal system and a cathedral on another planet,” will be unveiled next month.
  • But why stop there?: A Dutch architectural firm has designed an entire house that will be built of plastic parts made on a printer. The architects plan to have the entire front facade of the house, which will be located on a canal in northern Amsterdam, constructed by the end of the year. The 3-D-printed kitchen, study, storage room and guestroom will be added next year.
  • Imagine that: And in Chile, a team of engineers say they’ve developed software that enables objects to be printed in response to a person’s brain waves. In theory, users will be able to create and print 3-D versions of whatever their brains can conjure up. Chilean children will get the first crack at trying it out during a tour of schools later this month.

Video bonus: Janine Benyus talks about her favorite subject–the inspiration of nature.

Video bonus bonus: Listen to this violin for a few bars and you’ll see why some things probably shouldn’t be made on a printer.

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