Professor Paul Gatenholm has dedicated his academic life to testing whether naturally occurring structures can be extracted and applied to synthetic products.
And alongside a team of scientists at the Chalmers University of Technology, specifically the Wallenberg Wood Science Centre, he may just have made an astounding breakthrough: a new sustainable ink that allows wood to be fed into a 3D printer.
That’s right—the ability to print everything from furniture to clothes, packaging, health products and residential structures with wood.
“This is a breakthrough in manufacturing technology. It allows us to move beyond the limits of nature, to create new sustainable, green products,” the professor said in a press release. “It 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.”
Wood is every bit as strong and versatile as materials usually used in 3D printing—perhaps even stronger, featuring unique properties in terms of toughness, strength and porosity. But, it’s not easy to melt and reshape, and reforming wood as paper or card destroys the underlying architecture of wood cells. By converting into a nanocellulose gel, and now digitising the code, Gatenholm’s team has found a way of controlling or ‘growing’ the wood in any way desired. In addition, the scientists have added hemicellulose, a natural component of plant cells, which acts as a glue.
This is the latest in a long line of successes for the Wallenberg Wood Science Centre: It recently created a wood-derived biodegradable foam, used to good effect in a durable but biodegradable bike helmet.
Maybe for some, moving beyond the limits of nature is a scary concept. But, this innovation could mean quickly and cheaply building wooden houses. Machines have already been created that are capable of 3D printing a whole house.
Gatenholm, whose son Erik is also a 3D printing pioneer—currently working on the world’s first ‘universal bioink’—thinks the power to 3D print has huge implications for sustainability. “Imagine, for example, if we could start printing packaging locally,” he says. “It would mean an alternative to today’s industries, with heavy reliance on plastics and CO2-generating transport. Packaging could be designed and manufactured to order without any waste.”
The scientist also thinks there could be applications in space. “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.” In fact, this plan is in motion: NASA is working with the team on a project, which includes testing the materials in microgravity.