Sustainability Through Technology Part 2 - 3D Printing

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A New Dimension of Recycling

In the past few years, we've seen a surge in 3D. Movie theaters inflate their ticket prices so viewers can experience a movie surrounding them, instead of a film on a 2D surface. As the hype surrounding 3D movies has died down, an opposite reaction has occurred in response to 3D printing.

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3D-printing is a surprisingly simple idea and has been in development for over 20 years. Basically, a printer takes a computerized 3D design and uses that to print a physical object, layer by layer. The first printer was invented in 1984. It printed things by having a UV laser beam trace out each individual layer of the design in liquid polymer. As the design hardened layer by layer, the platform that the polymer was on was slowly lowered. Hours later, the final design was created.

Nowadays, a common 3D printing technique called selective laser sintering (SLS). The printer lays down a layer of find powder, then selectively fuses some of the granules by using a laser. This version is already very established and SLS 3D printers can use a multitude of powdered materials ranging from glass, to wax, to aluminum. The excess powder from printing can also be recycled. 

The most evident environmental benefit for 3D printing mostly affects manufacturing. If 3D printing becomes more widespread, it will be possible to store and deliver objects digitally. This will directly impact the environment by cutting down on all the pollution from manufacturing plants and will also reduce the fuel use in transportation of goods. In addition, it will be possible to recycle already 3D printed items as material for new items, eliminating waste.


Even more exciting is the current development of 3D projects. One recent group of undergraduates at the University of Washington has invented a 3D printer that turns plastic waste into pieces for rainwater harvesting systems and composting toilets. They hope to use their invention to help get clean drinking water for third world countries, as well as develop new ways to recycle.

But the benefits don't stop there. Scientists have only touched the tip of the 3D iceberg in terms of discovering ways to reduce waste and enhance production. People right now are working on printing 3D food. Although it sounds crazy, it does have logical backing. Many foods are made of different physical arrangements of ingredients, and if a 3D printer uses the right materials, edible objects can be printed.

A company called Modern Meadow is focused on ending the cycle of consumer dependence on animal slaughter. Andras Forgacs, the co-founder of the company, says, "if you look at the resource intensity of everything that goes into a hamburger, it is an environmental train wreck." Modern Meadow is hoping that with this new technology, they can produce 3D-printed leather products, and that bioprinted meat can be an eco-friendly alternative to the traditional beef.

burger problem.png

The best thing about 3D printing is that it's already becoming very popular. Just doing a simple Google search on 3D printing leads to countless websites manufacturing and selling customizable products such as jewelry and art. Right now, at-home 3D printers are expensive, prices ranging from a couple hundred dollars to over two thousand. Although a lot of the current designs are for people already knowledgeable about 3D printing, there are a lot of printers in the market that are user-friendly. Within the next couple years, more advanced and less expensive 3D printers will be available to a wider population. 

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