Garage 3D printers working with ceramics, bioplastics

Paul Raven @ 17-02-2010

3D-printed clay vesselWatching the backyard fabrication and 3D printing scene is fascinating, not least because it’s developing so quickly – a mere pipedream just five years ago, but currently expanding its capabilities in leaps and bounds. One thing that will increase the versatility of these systems is a wider selection of materials with which to work… and while you can already print in sugar (with other foodstuffs remaining strictly hypothetical at this point), we’ve got people brewing up their own stove-top bioplastic blends [via BoingBoing] and tweaking their fabbers to work with clay [via Chairman Bruce; image clipped from linked article].

The former is promising because it gives hobby-level users the opportunity to work in cheap biodegradable plastics by using off-the-shelf ingredients that can be scored at the corner store (e.g. glycerin, vinegar); that recipe has a way to go before being usable, but you can bet your boots that other fab-fanatics will be working to refine it and sharing their results online… many eyes make bugs shallow, after all (though Microsoft’s Shawn Hernan would disagree). And being able to print in clay really opens up the arts & crafts market to the fabbers; consumer-level 3D design tools should lead to a minor renaissance in ceramics design.

I wonder if this will provide some counterbalance to the seemingly inevitable loss of jobs in the US due to the rise of robotic, computer-controlled and/or outsourced manufacturing? Short runs of custom designs (and those very simple products for which the current profit margins of Chinese made-for-export factories will not hold forever) would seem ideally suited to small local businesses based around a few fabbers, an oven or kiln and a finishing bench… and if someone can work out a way to scale down plastics recycling so it can be used to generate the necessary materials using locally-sourced waste, you’ve got a whole new economic sub-circuit operating at a local level.

Industrial strength fungus: mycelium as building material

Paul Raven @ 05-02-2010

I usually try very hard to think up my own headlines when passing on items like this, but sometimes you just have to concede that the one you found can’t be improved upon. So, enter the newest candidate for the ultimate in environmentally-friendly building materials – fungal mycelium [via MetaFilter; image by James Jordan].

Mycelium doesn’t taste very good, but once it’s dried, it has some remarkable properties. It’s nontoxic, fireproof and mold- and water-resistant, and it traps more heat than fiberglass insulation. It’s also stronger, pound for pound, than concrete. In December, Ross completed what is believed to be the first structure made entirely of mushroom. (Sorry, the homes in the fictional Smurf village don’t count.) The 500 bricks he grew at Far West Fungi were so sturdy that he destroyed many a metal file and saw blade in shaping the ‘shrooms into an archway 6 ft. (1.8 m) high and 6 ft. wide.


A promising start-up named Ecovative is building a 10,000-sq.-ft. (about 930 sq m) myco-factory in Green Island, N.Y. “We see this as a whole new material, a woodlike equivalent to plastic,” says CEO Eben Bayer. The three-year-old company has been awarded grants from the EPA and the National Science Foundation, as well as the Department of Agriculture–because its mushrooms feast on empty seed husks from rice or cotton. “You can’t even feed it to animals,” says Bayer of this kind of agricultural waste. “It’s basically trash.”


Ecovative’s next product, Greensulate, will begin targeting the home-insulation market sometime next year. And according to Bayer’s engineering tests, densely packed mycelium is strong enough to be used in place of wooden beams.

There are so many possible punchlines that I think I’ll leave you to pick your own…

Cutting steel with electromagnetic fields

Tom Marcinko @ 10-12-2009

plexiglassThe bodies of vehicles need to be strong, but manufacturers also need to cut holes in them, for cable routing.

Working together with a number of partners including Volkswagen, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Machine Tools and Forming Technology IWU in Chemnitz have come up with another way to make holes in press-hardened steel bodywork. Dr. Verena Kräusel, head of department at the IWU, explains: “The new method is based on electromagnetic pulse technology (EMPT), which was previously used primarily to expand or neck aluminum tubes. We’ve modified it to cut even hard steels. Whereas a laser takes around 1.4 seconds to cut a hole, EMPT can do the job in approximately 200 milliseconds — our method is up to seven times faster.”

Another advantage is that it produces no burr, thus doing away with the need for a finishing process. Stamping presses become superfluous, and no costs arise from the need to replace worn-out parts.

I confess I didn’t know this was already being used to cut aluminum. It might be part of the workaday grind to some, but there’s something sf-nally satisfying about using electromagnetism to cut through metals.

[Image: Plexiglass zapped with electricity from Wikimedia Commons via Ethan Hein]

New nanoparticle self-assembly routes “more like nature”

Paul Raven @ 27-10-2009

Here’s the latest on new techniques in nanoparticle self-assembly as discovered by researchers from the US Department of Energy:

“We’ve demonstrated a simple yet versatile approach to precisely controlling the spatial distribution of readily available nanoparticles over multiple length scales, ranging from the nano to the macro,” says Ting Xu, a polymer scientist who led this project and who holds joint appointments with Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division and the University of California, Berkeley’s Departments of Materials Sciences and Engineering, and Chemistry. “Our technique can be used on a wide variety of nanoparticle and should open new routes to the fabrication of nanoparticle-based devices including highly efficient systems for the generation and storage of solar energy.”

Well, that’s the sales pitch out of the way. The thing that caught my eye about this particular piece, though, was this paragraph:

“Bring together the right basic components — nanoparticles, polymers and small molecules — stimulate the mix with a combination of heat, light or some other factors, and these components will assemble into sophisticated structures or patterns,” says Xu. “It is not dissimilar from how nature does it.

Now, think back to that video of DNA and RNA synthesising proteins like tiny little machinesas we get closer and closer to mastering matter at an atomic level, will the line between “life” and “machines” become increasingly meaningless?

Propellantless propulsion

Tom James @ 25-08-2009

Tether-satellite-NASAFollowing on from solar sails we have a discussion of that other science fictional bastion of propellantless propulsion – the space elevator – it turns out that space elevators and space tethers can be used for more than just getting into orbit:

A series of bolo tethers, each tether passing a spacecraft onto the next, could be used to achieve even larger orbit changes than a single system. For example, one tether system could catch a spacecraft from a very low orbit and swing it into a somewhat higher orbit. Another bolo picks it up from there and puts the satellite into a geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO). A third tether catches the load again and imparts sufficient velocity to it so that it reaches escape velocity. A satellite initially orbiting just above the atmosphere could thus be slung all the way into an interplanetary orbit around the Sun, and all this without using any rocket propulsion and propellant

This is in the context of a review by Centauri Dreams of Space Tethers and Space Elevators by Michel van Pelt, which explores tethers and space elevator concepts in some detail.

[from Centauri Dreams][image from Wikimedia and NASA]

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