Researchers use light to self-repair plastic in 3D printing

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Over the past few years, advancements in our everyday technological capabilities have allowed 3D printing to permeate various industries ranging from healthcare to manufacturing. Some of the best-known 3D printing designs are for precision medicine, where unique models of limbs are generated in 3D using patient data. These models facilitate therapeutic treatment and help reduce costs. In addition to this, 3D bioprinting is also being used to create synthetic blood vessels that could pave the way for organ transplantation. Due to the inherent creativity of 3D printing, its uses can also be wide ranging, from using food scraps to print gourmet creations to making prototypes for human settlement on the Moon. As our society continues to advance technologically, the use and consumption of 3D will continue to increase. The global 3D printing market is estimated to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 21% from 2021 to 2028, reaching a market size of $62.79 billion.

A common material used in 3D printing is plastic. The reason for this is that it is readily available, cost effective and allows for rapid prototyping. However, plastics pose an environmental problem and have various properties which, depending on the material, can make the plastic 3D design susceptible to breakage. Since in 3D printing the design is printed as a whole, if it breaks into one part it can be rendered unusable, since a new one would have to be printed in its place. Of course, the 3D printed design should be repaired, but if the design cannot be repaired and has to be thrown away, it affects the already existing problem of plastic waste. To solve this problem, a team of researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney have come up with an ingenious method of using light and a reagent to allow the plastic to “cure” itself. This study was recently published in Angewandte Chemie International Edition where researchers demonstrated that shining an LED light on a problem area causes a chemical reaction that fuses the two broken pieces together. The method involves using a reagent, which is then activated by light, causing a reaction in which the particles rearrange themselves under the presence of light, allowing the broken pieces to rejoin. The whole process takes about 1 hour and the researchers associated the new plastic as “scarred”, resulting in a stronger plastic than the previous one. The simplicity, ease and speed of the process is an advantage over existing processes, which take up to 24 hours and are more complex. The researchers believe such an approach would be particularly useful in areas where 3D printing uses specialized high-tech components, such as electronics and sensors. Of course, having a method that allows plastic to be repaired is also a welcome sign in high-volume productions where the environmental impact of broken and discarded plastic can add up, increasing plastic waste. Thus, this approach offers a promising step towards a viable production method and the reduction of plastic waste.

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