MIT’s New Sustainable Plastic Can Be 3D Printed

published Feb 18, 2022
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Credit: The Kitchn

A team of researchers at MIT, led by A. John Hart, professor of mechanical engineering, just created a new type of plant-based plastic that is just as lightweight as traditional plastic but is stronger and harder than typical aluminum alloys. It’s made from cellulose nanocrystals and it could be the next big thing in sustainable plastics.

Cellulose can be derived from plants, algae, fungi, bacteria and can also be found in some sea animals. The nanocrystals (called CNCs), which are chains of organic polymers, can be extracted from cellulose fibers via acid hydrolysis. The researchers used these CNCs to create a 60 to 90 percent organic composite that is comparable to bone and aluminum. The remaining percentage of the composite is made up of a synthetic polymer.

Hart and his team created the perfect ratio of CNCs and synthetic polymer that takes on a gel-like form. This gel can then either be fed into a 3D printer or poured into a mold.

“We basically deconstructed wood, and reconstructed it,” researcher Abhinav Rao told Designboom. “We took the best components of wood, which [are] cellulose nanocrystals, and reconstructed them to achieve a new composite material.”

The team even formed the new material into a tooth shape to demonstrate how CNC-based plastic could be used for dental implants or other products that need to be super-strong. “If we can replace some petroleum-based plastic with naturally-derived cellulose, that’s arguably better for the planet,” Hart added.

As of right now, the material shrinks as it dries, so the team is looking to how they can minimize shrinkage, which will ultimately help them create bigger products out of the cellulose composite without fear of cracking or buckling. Then the new plant-based plastic can become a real contender in the sustainable plastics market.