3D printing is a very exciting and cool technology. The potential to download and generate designs and have on-demand printing of 3D objects at home is really exciting. It is a technology that is revolutionising rapid prototyping and the way we produce and customise various goods. At the cutting edge, NASA are about to take the first 3D printer into space and have been testing 3D printed fuel injectors.
Over-hyped emerging technologies are often portrayed as flawless. Are there any downsides to 3D printing and its adoption as a mass consumer technology?
Prices are certainly falling and although 3D printing is still only in the hands of very early adopters and enthusiasts there is every indication that it will go mainstream. As it does I suspect there will be (once printing costs are suitably reduced) a period of immense frivolity, with the creation of an ocean of plastic detritus. We will design and print everything we can imagine, much of it will be useless and discarded.
Beyond the creation of ‘once cool’ garbage (which we can only hope will be biodegradable) there are other possible health concerns.
An interesting article at Science Direct entitled Ultrafine particle (UFP) emissions from desktop 3D printers highlights the potential danger of exposure to UFPs particularly using acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) as the printing material. 3D printing works by heating plastic feedstocks, and this can produce unwanted toxic by-products.
The authors note that:
Many desktop 3D printers rely on heated thermoplastic extrusion and deposition, which is a process that has been shown to have significant aerosol emissions in industrial environments
Because most of these devices are currently sold as standalone devices without any exhaust ventilation or filtration accessories, results herein suggest caution should be used when operating in inadequately ventilated or unfiltered indoor environments
3D printers use several different types of thermoplastics mostly acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) or polylactic acid (PLA). The benefit of PLA is that it is biodegradable and made from plant starch and is therefore renewable. ABS is a stronger thermoplastic, but it is petroleum-based and non-biodegradable. Polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) is biodegradable, recyclable and non-toxic.
ABS is potentially more troublesome as the report notes:
Primary gas-phase products of ABS thermal decomposition at very high temperatures have been shown to include carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide
The report suggests that health risks are not merely theoretical:
Several recent epidemiological studies have shown that elevated UFP number concentrations are associated with adverse health effects, including total and cardio-respiratory mortality, hospital admissions for stroke and asthma symptoms.
Therefore, results herein suggest that caution should be used when operating these 3D printing instruments inside unvented or unfiltered indoor environments due to their large emissions of UFPs.
I love the potential of 3D printing, but there needs to be a rounded debate about its possible environmental impact. Households spewing out ABS based junk could be the next ‘plastic bag’ disaster. Responsible on-demand printing using renewable and biodegradable materials might have a positive impact compared with mass production methods.
Heating plastics in poorly ventilated homes does unsurprisingly prove to be a rather bad idea as the UFP emissions report cautions.