Engineers at MIT have developed a way to use plant cellulose as a feedstock for 3D printers, providing another renewable, biodegradable alternative to popular petroleum-based polymers like ABS currently being used. The researchers also believe printing with cellulose could be cheaper and stronger than other materials and even offer potential antimicrobial properties to boot.

Cellulose is largely responsible for giving wood its mechanical properties. The MIT team used cellulose acetate instead, a widely available cellulose-based material with a reduced number of hydrogen bonds that can be dissolved in acetone and extruded through a 3D printer nozzle. The acetone evaporates quickly, allowing the material to solidify in place and an optional extra treatment can strengthen the printed part.

This image from a scanning electron microscope shows a cross section of an object printed using cellulose. The inset shows the surface of the object.
This image from a scanning electron microscope shows a cross section of an object printed using cellulose. The inset shows the surface of the object. (Source: MIT Researchers)

After 3D printing, the hydrogen bonding network is restored through a sodium hydroxide treatment. the strength and toughness of the resulting parts is greater than many of the materials commonly used for 3D printing, including acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA).

>> Read more by Eric Mack, New Atlas, March 5, 2017

3D Printing with plants is cheaper, stronger and more environmentally friendly