Come October, the largest 3D printer in the world will be installed at the University of Maine in Orono. One of its first uses will be to print a boat mold that boat builders can use. The substance behind the 3D printing operation will be a wood-based plastic developed at UMaine.
The boat mold is one of the first objectives of a new, bio-based 3D printing program that’s a collaboration between the University of Maine and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The hope is that the initiative could make 3D printing more useful in manufacturing while reinvigorating Maine’s forest products industry by finding new uses for wood-based products.
UMaine and Oak Ridge received $20 million in federal funds for the program, Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander said Thursday during an announcement in Washington, D.C. Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Daniel Simmons and Habib Dagher, the founding executive director of UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, also participated in the announcement.
“The material is nanocellulose, basically a tree ground up to its nano structure. These materials have properties similar to metals,” Dagher said. “We are taking those and putting them in bioplastics so we can make very strong plastics that we can make almost anything with.”
The nanocellulose will be added to a bioplastic called polylactic acid, which is manufactured from plants.
Initially, this material will be put into the printer to initially print a boat mold. But Dagher said the team of researchers from UMaine and Oak Ridge hope to apply the technology to a variety of large-scale manufacturing applications.
“While Oak Ridge is a global leader in additive manufacturing, the University of Maine is an expert in bio-based composites,” Collins said. “By working together, they will strengthen environmentally responsible advanced manufacturing in America as well as helping the forest industry in the state of Maine.”
In 2016, Collins and King asked for federal help to save Maine’s declining forest products industry following a string of paper mill closures. One result was the formation of an Economic Development Assessment Team, with representatives from multiple federal agencies, charged with devising economic development strategies for the areas hit hardest by the mill closures. The partnership between UMaine and Oak Ridge was a result of the team’s work.
The funding will pay for more research and development to improve the wood-based raw material used in the 3D printing operation and develop new uses for it, Dagher said. Oak Ridge and University of Maine researchers will work as a team as part of the program, with the federal funding equally divided between the two facilities.
Students and faculty from UMaine will be able to visit Oak Ridge’s facility in Tennessee and take advantage of the laboratory’s expertise in 3D printing technology, while Oak Ridge staff can visit UMaine’s composites center and learn about cellulose fiber and composites, Dagher said.