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Urban waste and bioinspired engineering provide key ingredients to 3D printed materials, allowing for global adoption of sustainable manufacturing processes.

Fabricating products using environmentally friendly materials is not enough to ensure ecological sustainability in its truest form; its manufacturing process also needs to be fully sustainable to ensure there is no waste, no new materials, or no need for transportation of the materials.

We have developed a technology that allows for the production and degradation of almost any object within such a circular economy using additive manufacturing and urban waste, the largest by-product of civilization. This technology, based on the fungus-like adhesive materials (FLAMs), effectively transforms chitin and cellulose, the two most abundant organic polymers on earth, into materials for sustainable manufacturing.

Cellulose can be easily obtainable from urban waste such as tissue paper, textiles, and plant matter. However, despite the ubiquitous nature of chitin, this polymer is mostly harvested as an industrial and agricultural product. For instance, chitin is mostly available as a seasonal by-product of the fishing industry and is limited to coastal areas. This means that chitin would be needed to be transported over between different ecosystems when there is a demand, contributing to freight transportation, which is known to be a key contributor to carbon dioxide emissions.

We have developed a link between bioinspired manufacturing and urban waste bioconversion, enabling a different mode of production based on materials that are conveniently available within any regional ecosystem, significantly reducing the need for transportation. We demonstrated that chitin can be produced within limited energy requirements and reduce food waste at the same time, easing the largest expense for municipalities all around the world. All with the help of the humble black soldier fly (BSF, Hermetia illucens). Chitin is extracted from the shells of these BSFs, which are used to convert food waste into proteins, oils, and other useful products.

The BSF is an insect that is globally known for its efficient breakdown of a wide variety of organic materials, such as food waste into biomass, thus reducing the amount of waste sent to the landfills. And with food loss and waste estimated to be approximately one-third of all food produced globally, the growing number of urban insect farms around the world has been a testament to the world’s continuous fight against food waste. We demonstrate the integration of FLAMs into waste magment system using BSF because its popularity as bioconversor, however the developed system is not reliant on the use of BSF or any other unique source of materials since chitin and cellulose are present in a myriad of organisms in every ecosystem on earth such as other insects, fungi, and worms. While these organisms are also used to process waste, they in turn produce chitin as a by-product. This result enables the adaptation of the general manufacturing of a region to its ecosystem, underscoring the benefits of FLAM utilizing the two most abundant organic polymers. 

This new development will transform the way we manufacture, enabling an alternative model where materials are produced and consumed using locally available resources. Also, it will allow anyone around the world to adapt and integrate general manufacturing to its surrounding ecosystem.

Circular manufacturing of chitinous bio-composites via bioconversion of urban refuse“: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-61664-1

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