Since its invention plastic has become central in our economy and way of life. If in the 1950’s we produced 0.5 million tons of plastic per year, nowadays this production has rocketed to 300 million tones. However only 3% of it is recovered and the remaining 97% accumulates in landfills and sea. Furthermore, recent research by the Austrian scientists from the Medical University of Vienna also found the presence of plastics in the human digestive system. It is thus becoming more critical for manufacturers to find sustainable/biodegradable alternatives to plastics.
This year our team demonstrated that more sustainable ways of production is possible. By using unmodified biological materials that are not only ubiquitous but also part of the ecosystem where they are used, these biodegradable materials are integrated into ecological cycles when they decompose and need not be recovered.
FLAM, a fully biodegradable and ecologically sustainable material that is made from cellulose and chitin, the two most common natural polymers and industrial byproducts on Earth. The cost of FLAM is less than 2$/kg, similar to commodity plastics and is 10 times lower than the cost of common filaments for 3D printing. This material can also be used to 3D print large structures.
To demonstrate the capability of FLAM to compite -and in many senses surpass- the current paradigm of manufacture with synthetic polymers, we produced the largest 3D-printed object in Singapore, and the world’s largest biological object ever printed. It is 5 metres tall, with a diameter of 0.5-metre at the base and 1-metre at the top (named Hydra) and is made entirely of FLAM. It weighs 100kg and took about 50 hours to 3D print it. Being made of the two most ubiquitous organic polymers on Earth, the Hydra can be produced -and degraded- anywhere using local natural resources, without the need to ship materials to build it, or to recover and use special facilities to compost it… No tricks, no “but”, no side notes; the technology behind the Hydra is not based on PLA or any other polyester usually claimed as biodegradable -but requiring recovery and specialized facilities-. Hydra if fully biological, making use only unmodified biological molecules that are perfectly integrated in the ecological cycles of Earth, without the need of recovery, treatment, or any other type of human intervention. FLAM is the first technology fully independent of plastic which can compete with it in terms of cost and versatility.
By demonstrating that FLAM is a versatile material that can be used in large-scale and regular 3D-fabrication, we aim to show that FLAM can be a sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative to current non-biodegradable materials, but also the missing piece for the development of circular manufacturing processes, were the materials are produced and degraded perfectly integrated into regional ecological cycles.
The Hydra is currently located at the main lobby of SUTD’s library.
“Large-scale additive manufacturing with bioinspired cellulosic materials“: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-26985-2