A partnership between the University of Maine and Oak Ridge National Laboratory will use ground-up trees and bioplastics to make “very strong plastics” that can be used in 3D printing, officials said Thursday.
The 3D printing, which will print items one layer at a time, could be used to make boat hull molds, shelters, building components, and tooling for composites and wind blades, among other possibilities.
The $20 million project will be funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office.
ORNL is considered the leading laboratory for the type of work known as additive manufacturing, said U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who was among the officials at the announcement in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
It sounds complicated, but in application, it’s fairly simple, Alexander said. Materials added to a 3D printer can be used to build stuff, he said.
“3D printing is likely to revolutionize manufacturing,” Alexander said. “I’m delighted that ORNL is playing such a vital role.”
ORNL has a Manufacturing Demonstration Facility in Hardin Valley that has a large 3D printer, and the MDF has been a well-known stop for showing officials and visitors some of the items that have been 3D printed, including a Jeep and a Shelby Cobra replica.
While ORNL is a global leader in additive manufacturing, the University of Maine is an expert in bio-based composites, said Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who was also at Thursday’s announcement.
The collaboration will help the forest products industry in Maine, she said. The world’s largest 3D printer will be at the University of Maine, or UMaine.
At Thursday’s announcement, Senator Angus King, a Maine Independent, said the bio-based plastics will use cellulosic fibers from wood, an entirely new use. The process will have the benefit of being less reliant on fossil fuels, principally oil, King said.
Maine is the most forested state in the United States, he said.
“We are sitting on a gold mine of fiber,” King said.
There were some problems in the forest industry a half-dozen years ago, and in 2016, Collins and King called on the U.S. Department of Commerce to establish the Economic Development Assessment Team. It was to work across agencies and sectors to create strategies for job growth and economic development in Maine’s rural communities, a press release said. The work of the EDAT led directly to the partnership between UMaine and ORNL.
“This is a very powerful combination,” King said of the partnership. “Maine’s forest products industry is central to our state’s identity, and (it) plays a leading role in our economy, which is why bringing innovation and creativity to the Maine woods is so important. I can think of no partnership more capable of advancing the industry than the world-class research institutions at University of Maine and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. With their collaborative expertise, Maine can leverage new opportunities to attract biobased industries to our state, further cutting-edge ideas, and foster growth and prosperity in our state’s rural communities.”
Alexander, the chair of the Senate’s Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, and Collins, a member of the Subcommittee, worked to secure funding for the initiative in the fiscal year 2019 Energy and Water bill.
“The development of sustainable, inexpensive wood-based materials for large-scale 3D printing has the potential to invigorate Maine’s forest products industry,” Collins said. “This project is an outstanding example of our national labs working cooperatively with universities to drive American innovation and strengthen our economy.”
“Using Maine forest products for 3-D printing is a great way to create new jobs in Maine and a good reminder that national laboratories are our secret weapons in helping the United States stay competitive in the rapidly changing world economy,” Alexander said. “The partnership between the University of Maine and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory is a model for how science and technology can help Americans prosper in the new economy.”
Also at Thursday’s announcement were Daniel Simmons, DOE assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy; Mohammad Khaleel, ORNL associate laboratory director; Jeffrey Hecker, UMaine provost; and Habib Dagher, executive director, Advanced Structures and Composites Center.
“The research model will strengthen regional manufacturing ecosystems by connecting university–industry clusters with Department of Energy laboratories, such as the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory,” Simmons said.
The collaboration will provide students, faculty, and companies associated with UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center access to ORNL’s assets and expertise in advanced manufacturing, the press release said. ORNL researchers, in turn, will gain access to UMaine’s facilities and expertise in composites and cellulose nano fiber, or CNF.
Scientists from ORNL and UMaine will conduct fundamental research in several key technical areas, including CNF production, drying, functionalization, and compounding with thermoplastics, multi scale modeling, and sustainability life-cycle analysis, the press release said. By placing CNF into plastics, strong, stiff, and recyclable bioderived material systems can be developed that may be 3D printed at deposition rates of hundreds of pounds per hour and up to 50 percent cellulose fiber loading. Printing with 50 percent wood promises to open new markets for the pulp, paper, and forest products industries, the press release said.
“As a forest product, CNF could rival steel properties, and its successful incorporation into plastics shows great promise for a renewable feedstock suitable for additive manufacturing,” the press release said.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
Watch Thursday’s press conference here.
See the press release here.
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