Scientists create "active" 3D printer plastic

The 3D-printed pollution-eradicating sponge(Credit: Matthew Hartings/American University)

3D printers are capable of producing items that can perform all sorts of functions … when power is applied to those items, that is. In the case of commercial-grade printers, however, the build material itself is typically an inert thermoplastic or resin. Researchers at Washington DC's American University have set out to change that, by printing a sponge-like matrix that eliminates pollutants. It's reportedly the first time that a commercial 3D printer has created an object that has active chemistry.

Led by chemist Prof. Matthew Hartings, the scientists first added nanoparticles of titanium dioxide (TiO2) to a conventional liquified ABS thermoplastic. Among other things, TiO2 is known for its ability to break down pollutants when reacting with natural light – that's why it's been used in experimental self-cleaning clothes.

The TiO2/ABS mixture was subsequently extruded and hardened to form a filament, just like the spools of filaments utilized by hobbyists and other users of 3D printers. Loaded into a regular printer, that filament was used to print the matrix.

Once complete, that structure was then placed in a sample of water containing an organic pollutant. Reacting with the ambient light, it neutralized that pollutant instantly.

Hartings and his team are now exploring more complex shapes for the matrix, and other active chemical additives that could be used for other applications. There is one limiting factor, however – so far, the concentration of nanoparticles has to be less than 10 percent of the structure's total mass.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Science and Technology of Advanced Materials.

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