Thursday, April 08, 2010

Plastics for pleasure and profit

At the moment, the Reprap can print half of its own parts – the rest, says Bowyer, "we have deliberately chosen so that they are completely standard bits and pieces that anyone can get anywhere in the world". The next goal is to get to the point of full self-replication. Bowyer's aspirations, however, go a lot further than that.

"I would like it ultimately to be cheap enough for everybody to own," he says, "and that's including the world's poorest people. Cheap enough for everyone to own and to be versatile enough that we could print a significant fraction of everything we need using the machine itself. Rather than using factories and shops and having trucks going up and down the motorway and raw materials having to be shifted around and so on, not only will the machine copy itself it will work with a raw material that will copy itself.

"How can it do that?" he continues. "The answer is that it will work with a plastic made from plants and if you've tens of square metres of land you have your own supply of raw material. Not only that, every time you use it, it's taking carbon out of the atmosphere."

Is there something wrong with this picture? As you known I am not one those scientific boffins, but it seems to me that making more plastic things is not going to save the planet. The journeys of plastic things invariably end in the sea, while the growing of plants for plastics does not seem particularly helpful when the world faces the prospect of another food crisis cause in part by the growing of plants for biofuels. On the other hand, printing objects found on Internet does seem like an awful lot of fun, so we probably will do it and damn the planet.


Vik Olliver said...

If the plastics are biodegradable it matters little if they get into the sea. Well, it will mean they release their CO2 again but at least it didn't come from fossil resources and ends up as a net carbon sink. Making the plastic from waste also minimises effects on food prices, and may in fact lower the cost of food as more money is made from what was previously the waste component.

(US Subsidies on corn are a separate, political issue that is bad for the planet.)

Also, transportation is minimised, local resources are used, wastage during manufacture is very low and so it ends up being a rather environmentally-friendly way of doing things.

Paul said...

As I said, I am not a science boffin; I do not know if one can make biodegradable plastics from natural fibres or from food waste. Even if such things can be made, one must ask howbiodegradable are these plastics, since they will cause the deaths of sea animals if they take any time to degrade. I suspect that most of the objects made with these machines will be made with the old-fashioned plastics.

I think we also need to ask ourselves whether we need any more plastic products. I would like to see plastics become more expensive and less easy to obtain, so that people might use products that are longer-lasting and less damaging to our environment.

Richard said...

What we need is for plastics to all be boat shaped so they'll float about and eventually wash up on a beach where they will be picked up be a small child. this will over time remove plastics from the environment and transfer them to children's bedrooms. Were we to go a step further and make plastic edible and preferably strawberry flavoured there would be no pollution problem at as as everyone loves strawberries.

laughing_boy said...

there's some interesting work being done with clay instead of plastics in repraps, if that floats your keyboard cat shaped gravy boat.