Biodegrading 3D printing material could lead to disposable oceanic sensors
Scientists at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Florida have developed a 3D printable material made of a marine-biodegradable base polymer that would break down over time to reduce ocean litter.
A downside to ocean exploration is litter, in the form of underwater equipment strategically left behind on the sea bottom.
The problem occurs because of the use of unmanned or autonomous underwater vehicles (UUVs) to house and deploy oceanic sensors – these sensors may be made to be single-use (disposable) or to last a certain amount of time before ceasing to function, but since retrieval from the ocean floor can be costly or impossible, in some cases they may simply be abandoned.
But that may not be the case for much longer, thanks to a recent invention from U.S. Navy scientists.
A team of scientists at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Panama City, Fla. has developed and patented a 3D printable material made of a marine-biodegradable base polymer that it says is easy to build from and would break down over time.
Invented by Josh Kogot, Ryan Kincer, and April Hirsch in the centre’s Biotechnology Research and Development Lab, the material combines polymers including polycaprolactone (PCL), polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), or polybutylene succinate (PBS), along with an agar gelling agent; and it can be 3D-printed into any size or shape and made to last a specific amount of time before degrading.
Since there is currently no known way to design and produce these structures so that their rate of degradation can be controlled, there is an unmet need to produce marine biodegradable 3D printable structures for which the rate of degradation of each structure can be selected for a particular mission.
By incorporating biological materials, like a synthetic hagfish slime created by the same lab, the process of biodegradation of the carrier vehicle structure is accomplished by microorganisms or enzymes feed on the biodegradable polymers that comprise the structure.
Through technology transfer, the new biodegradable 3D printing material technology is available to private companies via license agreement. TechLink, the Department of Defense’s national partnership intermediary for technology transfer is providing licensing services to businesses at no cost.
According to Brian Metzger, a senior technology manager at TechLink, the new printing material could be used for any number of applications, not just UUVs. “Not only can you 3D print this material into just about anything, but also to finely control the rate at which it degrades is really useful,” Metzger said. “This technology has the potential to cut costs and benefit the environment, and it could have many military and commercial applications for all types of underwater equipment.”