Researchers from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, have developed a 3D printable wood-based ink that they hope will help to contribute to a circular bioeconomy of sustainable products such as garments, packaging and furniture.
Professor Paul Gatenholm, who also previously contributed to 3D bioprinting research with a wood-derived cellulose ink, led this research through Chalmers’ Wallenberg Wood Science Centre. According to the professor, the new material development “is a breakthrough in manufacturing technology. It allows us to move beyond the limits of nature, to create new sustainable, green products.”
He added, “This means that those products which today are already forest-based can now be 3D printed, in a much shorter time. And the metals and plastics currently used in 3D printing can be replaced with a renewable, sustainable alternative.”
3D printed cellulose tackles waste
A nanocellulose gel converted from wood pulp was developed by the research team, which was then tuned to become a 3D printable ink material. Following this, the genetic code of wood was interpreted, and digitized for additive manufacturing to emulate the desirable ultrastructure of wood. This includes breathable, minimally dense, honeycomb structures found in natural wood.
Using three 3D bioprinters; the RegenHu, and CELLINK’s INKREDIBLE, and BIO X, Hierarchical structures characteristic for wood were designed and printed with control of density, swelling and directional strength. According to Professor Gatenholm’s group, this fundamental tests demonstrate the potential to manufacture bio-friendly garments, packaging, furniture and houses are from 3D printing wood.
“Manufacturing products in this way could lead to huge savings in terms of resources and harmful emissions,” said Professor Gatenholm.
“Imagine, for example, if we could start printing packaging locally. It would mean an alternative to today’s industries, with heavy reliance on plastics and C02-generating transport. Packaging could be designed and manufactured to order without any waste.”
A future for packaging?
Hemicellulose, a natural component of plant cells and the main element in to the nanocellulose gel, acts as a glue in the team’s 3D printed structures. It gives the structures sufficient strength, in a similar manner to the natural process of lignification, which is conducted to strengthen a plant’s vascular body.
The researchers believe that the excellent oxygen barrier properties of cellulose, combined with this 3D printing process, could lead to methods for creating airtight packaging for food or pharmaceuticals. Presently, the team has developed a prototype for a packaging concept from 3D printed honeycomb structures. The technology was presented at a workshop at the European Space Agency, and has been incorporated into a project for Florida Tech and NASA.
Professor Gatenholm added:
“The source material of plants is fantastically renewable, so the raw materials can be produced on site during longer space travel, or on the moon or on Mars.”
“Materials from trees assembled by 3D printing – Wood tissue beyond nature limits“ is co-authored by Kajsa Markstedt, Karl Håkansson, Guillermo Toriz, and Paul Gatenholm.
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Featured image shows the process of 3D printing from wood tissues into models. Image via Chalmers University of Technology.