By previously converting wood pulp into a nanocellulose gel, researchers at Chalmers had already succeeded in creating a type of ink that could be 3D printed. Now, they present a major progression – successfully interpreting and digitising wood’s genetic code, so that it can instruct a 3D printer.
It means that now, the arrangement of the cellulose nanofibrils can be precisely controlled during the printing process, to actually replicate the desirable ultrastructure of wood. Being able to manage the orientation and shape means that they can capture those useful properties of natural wood.
“This is a breakthrough in manufacturing technology. It allows us to move beyond the limits of nature, to create new sustainable, green products. 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,” says Professor Paul Gatenholm, who has led this research within Chalmers University of Technology’s Wallenberg Wood Science Centre.
A further advance on previous research is the addition of hemicellulose, a natural component of plant cells, to the nanocellulose gel. The hemicellulose acts as a glue, giving the cellulose sufficient strength to be useful, in a similar manner to the natural process of lignification, through which cell walls are built.
The new technology opens up a whole new area of possibilities. Wood-based products could now be designed and ‘grown’ to order – at a vastly reduced timescale compared with natural wood.
Paul Gatenholm's group has already developed a prototype for an innovative packaging concept. They printed out honeycomb structures, with chambers in between the printed walls, and then managed to encapsulate solid particles inside those chambers. Cellulose has excellent oxygen barrier properties, meaning this could be a promising method for creating airtight packaging for foodstuffs or pharmaceuticals for example.
“Manufacturing products in this way could lead to huge savings in terms of resources and harmful emissions,” he says. “Imagine, for example, if we could start printing packaging locally. It would mean an alternative to today's industries, with heavy reliance on plastics and C02-generating transport. Packaging could be designed and manufactured to order without any waste”.
They have also developed prototypes for healthcare products and clothing. Another area where Paul Gatenholm sees huge potential for the technology is in space, believing that it offers the perfect first test bed to develop the technology further.
“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. If you are growing food, there will probably be access to both cellulose and hemicellulose,” says Paul Gatenholm.
The researchers have already successfully demonstrated their technology at a workshop at the European Space Agency, ESA, and are also working with Florida Tech and NASA on another project, including tests of materials in microgravity.
“Traveling in space has always acted as a catalyst for material development on earth,” he says.