The future of 3D printing might just involve an unexpected ingredient: insects. Many of us share growing concerns about the mounting plastic waste. Plastic waste comprises a mishmash of filament scraps, support materials, failed prints resembling spaghetti, and more. The presence of discarded plastic objects poses a looming threat: the eventual creation of microplastic pollution. Over time, remnants inevitably break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Although some of this disintegration may occur in landfills, a more worrisome scenario unfolds in the ocean. Ocean currents carry these microplastics across vast expanses, disseminating them throughout the marine food chain, thus magnifying the environmental crisis.
In light of these concerns, an array of new 3D printing materials is under exploration—ones that are both functional and biodegradable. The focus here is on materials that, after their use and disposal, will naturally decompose into harmless chemicals, a stark contrast to the predominantly persistent 3D print materials of today. Among the various materials being scrutinized, there’s an unconventional contender: insects. A forthcoming research paper to be presented at the upcoming fall meeting of the American Chemical Society will unveil a fascinating breakthrough. The researchers have successfully crafted functional bioplastics from chitin, sourced from deceased black soldier flies. These flies play a vital role in farming larvae used for animal feed and waste management, which inevitably results in substantial quantities of fly carcasses. The researchers devised efficient methods to extract chitin from these fly remains, purifying it into a polymer they’ve aptly named “chitosan.” Chitosan can then be molded into various plastic products, including a highly absorbent hydrogel.
While hydrogel may not be an ideal 3D printing material, the research team aims to leverage chitosan to develop more versatile bioplastics that could closely resemble popular 3D print materials like polycarbonate. e and polyurethane, the latter being frequently employed in the casting process. It’s crucial to note that these findings are still in the realm of research and are at a relatively early stage. However, there’s a glimmer of hope that this type of research may ultimately yield practical materials suitable for desktop 3D printers. As mentioned by Karen Wooley, Ph.D., and Cassidy Tibbetts from Texas A&M University, imagine using insects as a source of chemicals to make plastics that can biodegrade later — with the help of that very same type of bug. That concept is closer to reality than you might expect. Today, researchers will describe their progress to date, including the isolation and purification of insect-derived chemicals and their conversion into functional bioplastics.
If this endeavor succeeds, we might find ourselves significantly less concerned about the endless stream of plastic creations emanating from these machines.