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Improving 3-D Printing By Copying Nature 128

Posted by samzenpus
from the build-it-better dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Biologist Janine Benyus is excited about the 3-D printer revolution and she thinks it can be improved by modeling natural processes. 'Benyus, who wrote Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature and co-founded the institute Biomimicry 3.8, would like to see a transition in manufacturing—from big, smoke-belching factories to small, clean desktop printers. The key to making it truly sustainable, she said, lies in mimicking how a natural ecosystem functions. "Nature uses life-friendly chemistry, which is nontoxic and water-based, and which does not require high heat," said Benyus. In contrast, most of the products people use today have been forged in industrial-size furnaces, with a plethora of toxic solvents. A potato chip bag may seem like a simple item, but it is actually made up of several thin layers of different materials, one to make it strong, one to make it airtight, and so on.'"
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Improving 3-D Printing By Copying Nature

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    "Nature uses life-friendly chemistry, which is nontoxic and water-based, and which does not require high heat." So where is the water-based oil, coal and natural gas? What a load of hooey.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      They are called "sugars" and "vegetable oils". Plants and algae make them from water and carbon dioxide.

      They can be used as is or further transformed into alcohol or biodiesel, respectively.

    • by Turbio (1814644) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @08:16PM (#44212827)

      Actually, a good part of the chemistry occurs in or around oil based membranes.
      And biological toxins are all around us. I am not talking just about toxic fungi, pathogenic bacteria or poisonous animals. The very potato chips she mentions are toxic if eaten uncooked, as well as soya beans and many others. Those compounds prevent the plants from being eaten. So we cook our foods to inactivate toxic compounds (and kill pathogens). There exists an arms race out there in the wild, and she's a biologist, she knows how it works.

    • How this is "Interesting", I don't know. The hydrogen in the hydrocarbons came from water.

    • Nature uses life-friendly chemistry because (a) life evolved in the geologically given chemistry, so life certainly can cope with that, and (b) the life-produced chemistry is life, and life that kills itself won't survive long.

      Note that life does explicitly not always produce chemical substances which is non-toxic for other life forms than itself; if you don't believe it, try to eat deadly nightshade.

    • by flyneye (84093)

      Well, when they find them, we can all stay at home and print our own potato chip bags to save the world.

  • Slow (Score:5, Funny)

    by Ruprecht the Monkeyb (680597) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @06:47PM (#44212443)
    Nature also takes 40 years to give me a two-by-four.
    • Re:Slow (Score:4, Informative)

      by Trepidity (597) <> on Sunday July 07, 2013 @08:25PM (#44212869)

      If you don't have high standards for your 2x4s (and if you're buying what your local home-improvement store sells, you probably don't), it's more like 15-20 years for some fast-growing pine lumber.


      • All depends on what you mean by high standards.

        For a quality piece of furniture, then rough, fast growing pine isn't the best choice.

        For rougher work which does not need to look amazing and last in perpetuity, fast growing pine is the right choice. Using something slower growing is a waste of resources.

        For example replacing some rotten parts of my shed (caused by careless previous owners leaving wet stuff piled up against it) does not require quality wood and honestly is not worth the money.

        • by necro81 (917438)

          If you don't have high standards for your 2x4s

          All depends on what you mean by high standards. For a quality piece of furniture

          No furniture-making carpenter uses 2x4s. If they are starting from rough-sawn lumber, then it's 4/4, 8/4, etc.

          • No furniture-making carpenter uses 2x4s. If they are starting from rough-sawn lumber, then it's 4/4, 8/4, etc.

            I was working under the assumption that the OP would apply the same quality standards to pieces of wood other than those cut to 2x4. My local lumber yard offers all sorts of sizes of rough sawn fast grown pine for all sorts of things.

            It all looks largely the same in terms of quality.

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        Your local home-improvement store probably sells douglas fir 2x4s, and (somewhat ironically) pine furring strips.

        • Typically 2x4 is spruce or pine. Fir is generally only used for strength-critical things like solid-wood floor joists.

    • by RockDoctor (15477)

      Nature also takes 40 years to give me a two-by-four.

      Surely the problem is that you're so impatient that it takes you less than 40 years to want a 2-by-4.

  • by drwho (4190) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @06:48PM (#44212449) Homepage Journal

    Great granddaddy left the crappy farm and came to the USA and worked in the factory. Finally, his family had enough food to eat, a roof over their heads, and people weren't trying to kill them every other week. But the factories are all going away now. No more forges, no more assmbly lines, no more smog, no more jobs. Unless you're lucky, and move to Silicon valley, and manage to strike it rich and not develop a disease, go insane, or burnout before you hit age 30. At age 30, you either reture to a beach somewhere on your IPO cash, or are shuffled off to jobs that can't keep up with inflation, as your job functions are moved overseas.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      We are in a new age of higher productivity with much less human labor of any kind needed and the rest of us go on to a life of leisure - in poverty.

    • Are there really smoke-belching factories around? I know a few that look like they are belching smoke, but it's either water vapor or oxygen.... Where are these factories located?
      • by mirix (1649853)

        Even with scrubbers, coal fired things are still pretty belchy.

        Smelters are a lot cleaner than they used to be, but they still put out a lot of filth.

        There's a big nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario:

        Inco alone accounts for 20% of all of the arsenic emitted in North America, 13% of the lead and 30% of the nickel.

        (This is after upgrades - they mostly reduced SO2 and NOx as I understand it... less acid rain now, at least).

        In 1998, Inco emitted 146.7 metric tons of lead

        Don't want your kids to eat the dirt if they live around there...

        Acid rain had made the whole place barren by the 50's, so they built the tallest smokestack in the western hemishpere [] (1250 feet!) to disp

        • I grew up in Sudbury and blame my asthma on the nickel smelting.
          • If i had a nickel every time someone blames asthma...

          • by Deflagro (187160)

            I did too and I do as well. I remember the taste of the sulphur drops when the wind blew the smoke back our way. I am in Austin now so it's a step up :P

        • by dbIII (701233)

          Even with scrubbers, coal fired things are still pretty belchy

          Details please if you want to show you have a clue.

          The entire point of scrubbers is so all that NOx, SOx and fly ash ends up in a dam, it's not just spraying vast amounts of water around for the hell of it.

          • by drinkypoo (153816)

            We can find smokestacks out of compliance as fast as we can pay people to probe them. My buddy the ex-stack-climber says that literally everything he sampled (which included coal power plants) was over the legal numbers. Everything includes coal-fired power generation. Those scrubbers either don't work or aren't being used correctly.

      • Where are these factories located?

        In China.

    • by Kjella (173770)

      Or you pick a line of work that can't practically be outsourced, like say plumbing. Or you find yourself a niche that simply won't outsource, I'm not even allowed to remote in to work (well I can read email and documents, but not work on any actual data) so I very much doubt they'll ship it wholesale to India or China. Does that suck a bit? Yes, but if the job could be done from anywhere then the job could be done from anywhere, it strikes both ways. It's sad to say for us working with computers, but if you

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        Or you pick a line of work that can't practically be outsourced, like say plumbing.

        Plumbing is a union job. That has its ups but it also has its downs. I know both plumbers and electricians who can't actually get work because the unions have the job market completely sewn up and they effectively get to decide who works.

        Probably the best thing to do would be to move out of the USA before the dustbowl hits. Where to go now, though? I was thinking Panama but now that both the Pacific and the Gulf are boned and you don't want to eat the fish, that's kind of shot.

        • Trade unions prevent a race to the bottom and help maintain standards. It's not the unions keeping you out of a job; it's the fact that I wouldn't hire a tradesman outside of a union.

  • by sandytaru (1158959) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @06:52PM (#44212465) Journal
    -- is ensuring that whatever we end up using for our 3D printed parts can, itself, be easily recycled. The problem with a lot of hard plastics is that they're difficult to recycle. Using softer polymers in 3D printing, and engineering their structures to create the strength (as the article discusses with the abalone shells) will allow us to create objects that can be used until they are no longer needed, then melted right back into the tank for new stuff. Having objects made from natural materials is all good and well, but the material has to be suitable for the purpose. I don't think I'd want a gear for my car made out of wood chips.
    • by drwho (4190) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @06:59PM (#44212509) Homepage Journal

      thermoplastics do that. Thermosetting compounds don't. Sometimes you can get away with a thermoplastic, sometimes not. Then there's the problem of miximg them in the recycling stream, especially when people add all sorts of things to the thermoplastics like metals and colors and stuff. Also, the big move has been to make plastics that don't last landfills, they tell us. UV light breaks them down. No recycling then!

      Sometimes you just have to burn the stuff. Then use the atmosphere and the sun and the ocean to make it back into the really basic material.

      • by plover (150551) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @08:21PM (#44212853) Homepage Journal

        We could fix a lot of this by engineering stuff to be recyclable. Imagine assembly with connectors designed to come apart in easy to create environments. Maybe the rivets release all ABS parts at 75C, and all aluminum parts at 90C.

        • The rivets already release ABS at ~105C.
          Aluminium parts don't get released until 660C though.

          • by plover (150551)

            What I meant was to use different materials engineered to self-destruct as the rivets or fasteners. Then you could follow a formula to recycle it: Heat it to 50C and the case separates. Heat it to 60C, and all the 60C screws holding the circuit boards melt, allowing recovery of electronics and precious metals. Heat to 75C and all the ABS parts pop off. Continue heating to 90C and all the aluminum rails come apart. Apply steam, and all the steel separates.

            You could even spring load the fasteners so that when

            • Then poor product owner leaves the the product in the boot of their car in summer and come back to a pile of crap. Especially in parts of the world where the ambient temperature exceeds 40C.

              • by plover (150551)

                That was just an example for Slashdot using completely made up temperature numbers. If the boot of an Aussiewagon can climb to 70C, then select the fasteners to pop at 80C. Or instead of temperature, have them pop with non-toxic common solvents, like fresh water to release the circuit boards, salt water to release stainless steel, and vinegar to release the ABS plastics. Or maybe have the rivets contain an antifreeze that would expand and burst the connectors if it's frozen below -40C. You could have a

        • A lot of stuff is already designed to be recycled. The problem is the separation process. It's extremely labor and time intensive to do this. More so than making the actual product to begin with.

          Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. In that order. Burning the trash to reclaim thermal energy (power generation) would fall under "Recycle".

          • by plover (150551)

            That's why a series of graduated separation processes has a lot of appeal. Heat it to 90C and only the "type 1" materials are released. Heat it to 95C and the "type 2" materials are separated, etc.

            It doesn't have to be heat actuated, either. Heat is nice and low tech. Anybody can slowly heat a product and wield a crowbar, but it could certainly be made to work with a more complicated recycling machine.

            As I also suggested above, connectors could be held shut with a series of embedded fusible wires hooked up

        • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

          Maybe the rivets release all ABS parts at 75C

          Stuff would fall apart if left in a hot car or in direct sunlight. Your basic idea is good, but the implementation needs a bit more work.

      • The mixed-color issue could be handled by selling it as a cheaper grade for people willing to paint on the colors they want over a white basecoat -- I imagine that would work fine for a lot of hobbyists creating models, for example. If the person wants to recycle that plastic, they can use paint thinner or similar liquid to strip it back to a naked state prior to melting down or customizing it. That method could produce a viable source of cheap 3D-printable plastic for people testing out a design, on a ti

        • by dbIII (701233)
          Already done with recycled plastic - throw in a lot of carbon black and it doesn't matter so much what the other pigments in the mix are.
      • by tsa (15680)

        UV light breaks them down but the molecules that are left are often also harmful for the environment. We ned together much better at making biodegradable polymers.

    • by mirix (1649853)

      Sometimes you need a thermoset [], for heat tolerance. (generally phenol resins, like bakelite, excel here). Pretty common in cooking pot handles / barbeque handles, some automotive parts, etc.

      They are one shot, they don't melt, but generally decompose into toxic stink, if you do get them hot enough. polyester resins and epoxies (like in fibreglass) are like this too.

      Though for lower temperature stuff, nylon seems to be more popular now, and it is recyclable ( melts at ~200C, I think).

      Hardness isn't really the

    • by Nutria (679911)

      I don't think I'd want a gear for my car made out of wood chips.

      30 years ago, I was driving down the Interstate in my Chevy Monza (hey, it was cheap and fuel efficient) when the engine suddenly sputtered to a halt. The mechanic showed me that the timing gear was made of particle board which had disintegrated after about 50,000 miles worth of centrifugal force.

  • Non-toxic? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by interkin3tic (1469267) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @06:56PM (#44212483)
    If nature does things in a "non-toxic" manner, it's only because other life adapts to the things that were toxic.

    Case in point: oxygen in the atmosphere []

    I don't have a problem with sustainable practices, because that will be better for all concerned, but lets steer clear of justifying it with Gaianism crap.
    • Re:Non-toxic? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Trepidity (597) <> on Sunday July 07, 2013 @07:33PM (#44212627)

      The nontoxic part doesn't really make sense even taking adaptation into account. There are plenty of natural toxins that are toxic to us and other organisms. Nature sometimes "invents" them specifically for their toxicity, as in the case of reptile venom or mycotoxins.

      And as for natural vs. unnatural chemistry: chemical-weapons programs use "unnatural" chemistry, while biological-weapons programs use "natural" chemistry. But does that distinction mean anthrax is the earth-friendly "green" alternative to mustard gas?

    • by fermion (181285)
      more importantly we have adapted to materials at certain levels. For instance, sugar at levels found in nature are one thing, while concentrated levels found in process food might be a toxic or near toxic levels. Likewise there is an acceptable level of background radiation, while humans now have the ability to concentrate natural radiation and otherwise create levels that are instantly toxic.

      So honestly, everything we have and can have is natural. Even elements that are made in reactors have existed

  • by vik (17857) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @06:59PM (#44212507) Homepage Journal

    It's made from sugarbeet, milk waste, and current pilot plants are looking at cellulosic production piggybacking on ethanol research. Only in the US where agricultural subsidies encourage it is it made from maize. That's a political problem, not a biological problem.

  • by nashv (1479253) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @06:59PM (#44212511) Homepage

    I hate such noob statements ""Nature uses life-friendly chemistry, which is nontoxic and water-based, and which does not require high heat," These are essentially teleological arguments.

    Nature (the environment) uses what is available. Life evolves to survive, or it ceases to exist. Simple as that. You are a biologist, quit with the Mother Nature-Goddess Gaia worshipping nonsense.

    • by drwho (4190) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @07:10PM (#44212545) Homepage Journal

      I'd mod you up.

      There's the whole problem of what is 'nature' and what 'use' means. Is not man a part of nature? Are we not just clever monkeys? The only thing outside of nature is the supernatural, but last I checked, neither gods nor ghosts were making much of anything.

      life-friendly chemistry. WTF does that mean? "nontoxic and water-based" - ok, so now it's all about what solvents are involved? Water is a great solvent, but right now I am enjoying it mixed with some ethanol. Than you, yeasts. Yeast is natural, right?

      What is the matter with high heat? Are you afraid of fire, Ms Benyus? I think you are. Fire from coal is pretty intimidating, for sure, but also very useful. Coal, iron, and steam changed the world but people like Benyus probably don't think it was for the better. You worship the sun, the wind, the moon. You don't want to think about the fire from the earth, the fire beneath the earth, energy that comes from other tan your god, Sol. You don't like coal, or petroleum, or nuclear power. But you won't tell yourself why. You just don't think they're 'natural'.

      • by baKanale (830108)

        ...tan your god, Sol.

        In Soviet Russia, your god Sol tans you!

      • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 07, 2013 @11:14PM (#44213445)

        Chem Eng, Enviro specialty here. Biological processes are sweet because they run at/near SATP (room temp and pressure) and generally use water (cheap, non-toxic) as a solvent. Typical industrial processing techniques use harsh-assed chemicals (safety + environmental risk) and a lot of energy (usually heat). That being said, biological systems are typically inefficient as shit and can't produce the same output / rector volume but are much cheaper. SO if you can create a culture that's particularly suited to what you want it to do (E. Coli is often used) you can recreate an expensive process that involves toxic (read: expensive to dispose of) with a cheap process with a disposal cost that is orders of magnitude lower than the traditional solution.

        So yeah, that's why biological processes (low temp, nontoxic materials) are sweet. They cost less.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 07, 2013 @07:19PM (#44212577)

      I always tell people not to anthropomorphize nature, as nature does not like it. :)

    • Especially when nature very often is toxic, and very painful......
    • by plover (150551)

      Nature (the environment) uses what is available.

      That's actually the basis for her entire argument, minus the goddess-worshipping bits. If nature can produce cellulose without a furnace, why can't we produce it without a furnace?

      The obvious answer is that we don't have the patience required to grow a 3D chair instead of printing one. But she raises an interesting challenge.

      • by nashv (1479253)

        It is actually, quite clear why nature can produce cellulose without a surface. Nature does the things it does because it handles substances at the scale of a few microns. Cellulose for example is produced in a organelle inside a cell and then secreted. By arranging these small units , it is possible to create shapes you can't easily do.

        Molecular manipulation is done in cells with enzymes. Enzymes are rather sophisticated, asymmetric catalysts compared to the catalysts we use in out relatively giant test-tu

  • by He Who Has No Name (768306) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @07:28PM (#44212609)

    Mother Nature doesn't do much manufacturing of metals of any kind, much less ferrous alloys.

    She only works with ceramics in a few limited ways.

    Those giant, hot, smog-belching factories were built specifically because we can't build starships out of wood and stone, or semiconductors out of sandstone and clay. Show somebody how to plant, fertilize, water, and grow a SSTO launch vehicle or a billion-plus transistor CPU, we'll be all over that. Until then, we'll do it with steel and silicone, and those materials have to come from somewhere, and that somewhere isn't a garden.

    • by Turbio (1814644)

      You speak so 20th century...
      Current trends in materials use carbon nanotubes and proteins which make lighter and stronger structures, and also have some interesting electrical properties. But of course, these can't stand very hight temperatures.
      For computing power there are neural networks and even some processes using RNA molecules. But of course silicon based computers are still very efficient at what they do, and quantum computers will be even better.
      So in the end, the best is to develop the both worlds,

      • by Nutria (679911)

        Current trends in materials use carbon nanotubes and proteins which make lighter and stronger structures

        Still in the laboratory. Call us back when a company is mass producing something out of carbon nanotubes.

        • by Turbio (1814644)

          Exactly. She is talking about the future, and where should we focus our research. Not about today.

    • Silicone is used to make fake boobs, it's not a semiconductor.

      • Silicone is used to make fake boobs, it's not a semiconductor.

        Perhaps he/she is producing a fembot (with minimal intelligence), you insensitive clod.

      • by Macgrrl (762836)

        Silicone is used to make fake boobs...

        But is an excellent example of something which is unnatural and can kill you.

    • Mother Nature doesn't do much manufacturing of metals of any kind

      Supernovas aren't part of nature?

      much less ferrous alloys.

      What's the core of the Earth made of, and who put it there?

  • ...which are themselves manufactured in big, smoke-belching factories.

    • by Turbio (1814644)

      I guess you are missing the point. You should learn about the RepRap community.

      • I was making a joke, but if you'd like me to be serious, I do know about RepRap, and I have to say: the premise that we can make self-replicating devices (or device families) that not only reproduce themselves, but acquire the resources for their reproduction in an efficient way, seems far-fetched to me. That is what this article is about: we assume that evolution has made refinements on reproductive processes that should be clues for people trying to improve self-replication in machines. Unfortunately, eve

  • by Bob9113 (14996) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @07:52PM (#44212723) Homepage

    "Nature uses life-friendly chemistry, which is nontoxic and water-based, and which does not require high heat,"

    Nature's manufacturing processes are exothermic, just like factory processes. They're just really slow, so the heat difference at any moment is fairly low. Take plants, for example -- they take in solar energy, increase order locally, and produce heat during respiration. The law of increasing entropy requires unordered energy to be released to offset the increases in local order.

    The heat produced is not as shockingly different as it seems based on casual observation; the waste heat is just being expelled over a longer period of time. According to Wikipedia, and my incomplete understanding of the entire process, photosynthetic biomass production is at most 32% efficient (see below). I would guess meatware manufacturing is not much more efficient, if at all.

    Wikipedia: Photosynthetic Efficiency []:
    Stated another way:
    100% sunlight -> non-bioavailable photons waste is 47%, leaving
    53% (in the 400-700 nm range) -> 30% of photons are lost due to incomplete absorption, leaving
    37% (absorbed photon energy) -> 24% is lost due to wavelength-mismatch degradation to 700 nm energy, leaving
    28.2% (sunlight energy collected by chlorophyl) -> 32% efficient conversion of ATP and NADPH to d-glucose, leaving
    9% (collected as sugar) -> 35-40% of sugar is recycled/consumed by the leaf in dark and photo-respiration, leaving
    5.4% net leaf efficiency.

    • by Turbio (1814644)

      I think that what she means is that biological chemistry uses enzymes that lower the activation energy []. So 99.99% of all biological chemical reactions occur at less than 50C (my very arbitrary guesstimate).

      • by Bob9113 (14996)

        I think that what she means is that biological chemistry uses enzymes that lower the activation energy. So 99.99% of all biological chemical reactions occur at less than 50C (my very arbitrary guesstimate).

        Well, OK, but so what? Why would it matter what temperature it happens at? Suppose we can produce a cellular phone case using a low temperature process that requires 3 kilowatt hours and vents 2 kilowatt hours of energy as waste heat, or using a high temperature process that requires 2 kilowatt hours and

  • by PPH (736903) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @08:17PM (#44212829)

    I know of a few animals [] and plants [] you'd better not mess with or risk getting sick/dying.

    Why is it that the greenies always seem to equate natural things with healthy things? Nature will kill you, given half a chance.

  • by HotNeedleOfInquiry (598897) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @08:31PM (#44212889)
    Why not build a 400,000 lb bumblebee instead of a B747? Point being that imitating nature oftentimes isn't good or even possible.
  • by brillow (917507) on Sunday July 07, 2013 @10:28PM (#44213291)

    Janine Benyus has a BS in Natural Resource Management and english lit from Rutgers. []

  • "Eco-friendly nature"? Does this include a) uncontrolled nuclear reactions (that thing up in the sky called the "sun"), b) volcanos, c) crushed under the weight of a mile or two of crust?

    *sigh* I'm an environmentalist, but also know science, and idiot ideas are just that.

    Go ahead, find an eco-friendly way, other than using water or solar-generated electric to produce aluminum. Or steel.


Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Mother Nature cannot be fooled. -- R.P. Feynman