The Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the University of Maine (UMaine) have been granted $20 million in funding for a bio-based additive manufacturing program. The joint project will seek to develop a 3D printing process and wood-based materials that will effectively create a new market for Maine’s forest products industry.
The AM program was officially announced in Washington, D.C. last week by U.S. Senators Susan Collins, Lamar Alexander and Angus King along with Daniel Simmons, the assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the U.S. Department of Energy. The event was also attended by UMaine and ORNL representatives.
Through the joint project, ORNL and UMaine will work closely with the forest products industry to develop bio-based 3D printing materials for a broad range of large-scale applications, including boat hull molds, shelters, building components, tooling for composites and wind blades. In what is a perfect combination of our last AM Focus (Maritime) and current focus (Large-Format AM), the partners will also explore the ability to print structurally demanding systems such as boats.
“This exciting initiative is a win-win that will bolster the cutting-edge research performed at the University of Maine as well as support job creation in our state,” said Sen. Susan Collins. “The development of sustainable, inexpensive wood-based materials for large-scale 3D printing has the potential to invigorate Maine’s forest products industry. This project is an outstanding example of our national labs working cooperatively with universities to drive American innovation and strengthen our economy.”
The large-scale, bio-based AM project is funded by the DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office and aims to strengthen regional manufacturing through the alliance of academia and industry with support from the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) at ORNL. The $20 million in funding was secured in the 2019 Energy and Water bill with the help of the three senators.
“This collaboration is a shining example of UMaine’s commitment to exceptional research, workforce development, and economic advancement benefiting Maine and beyond,” said UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy. “This partnership will allow our faculty and students to work seamlessly with Oak Ridge researchers, learn, innovate and strengthen local manufacturing.”
As a world leader in cellulose nano fiber (CNF) technology, UMaine will leverage its expertise for the development of nano- and micro-cellulose reinforced thermoplastic composites for 3D printing. The research will be conducted at its Advanced Structures and Composites Center. ORNL, for its part, will bring to the table its expertise in advanced manufacturing and its resources as the DOE’s largest science and energy laboratory.
“The University of Maine is doing cutting-edge research related to bio-feedstocks and the application of advanced manufacturing in regional industries,” said Thomas Zacharia, ORNL Director. “We are thrilled at this opportunity to expand our research base while providing UMaine with access to the leading national capabilities we have developed at ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility.”
With the launch of the bio-based AM program, ORNL and UMaine scientists will begin to conduct research in a number of relevant areas, including CNF production, drying, functionalization and compounding with thermoplastics; multi-scale modeling; and sustainability life-cycle analysis.
The ability to reinforce CNFs into plastics could create opportunities for developing strong, stiff and recyclable bio-derived materials for 3D printing. In terms of scale, the research team says the materials could be printed at rates of hundreds of pounds per hour with up to 50% cellulose fiber loading. This high percentage of wood fill has the potential to open new markets in the pulp, paper and forest industries. Emphasizing the strength of CNF, the researchers add that it has properties comparable to those of steel.
“We will integrate 20 years of research in bio-based composites at UMaine and 3D printing at ORNL,” added Habib Dagher, executive director of UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center. “It is an opportunity engine for our students, faculty, staff and manufacturing industry who will work side by side with researchers at our nation’s foremost research laboratory.
“Together, we will break down wood to its nanocellulose structure, combine it with bioplastics, and print with it at hundreds of pounds an hour. The research we will be conducting with ORNL will spur next-generation manufacturing technologies using recyclable, bio-based, cost-effective materials that will bolster our region’s economy.”