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American University professors pitch to LEGO: 3D printed cellulose composites for greener products


Photo Courtesy of Matthew Hartings

American University

WASHINGTON - In January 2017, an associate professor at American University in the chemistry department was awarded a faculty research support grant for his project on 3D Printed Cellulose Composites.

Matthew Hartings, PhD in Chemistry from Northwestern University, is leading the research project in a partnership with Douglass Fox, PhD in Chemistry from Michigan Technological University, on seeking how to transform consumer goods with sustainable materials using 3D printing.

“The typical way to make a shape or an object with plastic is you just extrude it. You heat up the polymer, you have a mold, and you push that melted polymer into the mold and you can make something that looks like a T-Rex skull,” Dr. Hartings said.

But Dr. Hartings said this project was a change in focus for him since it was in collaboration with Dr.Fox, who’s work revolves around renewable materials in different polymer applications, particularly a natural polymer found in leaves of trees called nanocrystalline cellulose. Working alongside them was their research assistant, Noy Kaufman, a recent graduate from American. Having worked with Dr.Fox since her freshman year, Kaufman was asked to join the project since she had experience in the technique.

“So on the project, I was the one doing the research on site in the lab. I was making the solutions, I was doing most of the lab work and then the other student was focused on the analysis,” Kaufman said.

Dr. Hartings expertise comes with blending these nanoparticles with a particle called ABS, which stands for acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. This polymer produces several common consumer goods but for Dr. Hartings and Dr. Fox, only one stood out for them: lego blocks.

“[They] make 19 billion legos every year. That is a lot of ABS to go through. And they recently announced that they were spending $150 million towards making greener lego materials,” Dr. Hartings said. “It’s tricky to do that and so Dr. Fox and I jumped at this chance because he has developed a technology blending the cellulose material with industrial polymers work really nicely. And no one has ever tried to use his blending method with ABS before, and so our goal was to make a printable ABS-material that was 25 percent cellulose.”

According to Dr.Hartings, if LEGO were able to use this process, it would take a quarter of the materials they are using now in petroleum-based ABS and instead, use a byproduct of paper-making.

Although the funding for the research from the Provost Office from American came to a close in early August, Dr. Hartings says “the fun thing with research is that it’s never done.”

“So where we are right now is we have made an ABS-based 3D printing filament. We are in the middle of doing mechanical tests on the pieces we’ve printed to see if it matches the properties of regular ABS lego blocks,” Dr Fox said. “And once that’s done, we’ll write a research article and once that research article is accepted then we will apply for federal grants and hopefully then pitch it to LEGO.”

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