Researchers at Auburn University in Alabama are part of interdisciplinary team seeking to make strides in future manufacturing, including homes constructed via 3D printing. The teams hope that the path of this research may lead to viable solutions that would have seemed futuristic mere years ago. This could include manufacturing that takes waste biomaterials, which can then be used in additive manufacturing—more commonly known as 3D printing—to create housing or building components.
The study, which spans the disciplines of engineering, chemistry, forest resources and architecture, also draws upon the expertise of scientists at Auburn University’s partner institution, the University of Idaho, with Michael Maughan, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, at the helm.
The Auburn-led portion of this interdisciplinary project will focus on bio-resin development as a feedstock for 3D printing, which will be done at Idaho. This process will include conversion of biomass into chemicals and nanomaterials to help improve the sustainability of the resin.
Available housing is a reality for only one-half of households, said Professor Brian Via, director of the school’s Forest Products Development Center. Via is a principal investigator for the new research project funded at approximately US$3.9m (£2.9m) from the National Science Foundation’s Research Infrastructure Improvement Program. “The problem of lack of affordable housing is further compounded for minority groups, which experience poverty at twice the rate of other populations,” he said.
While seeking solutions for this societal issue, the project will also investigate the environmental impact of conventional concrete and steel used in the construction of traditional buildings in comparison with tall timber buildings, which emit one-third to one-half of the greenhouse gases of those traditional materials, Via said.
“Recently, the US is trending toward mass timber buildings as a first-generation material to reduce our carbon footprint,” he said. “However, advanced manufacturing can help to utilise more biomaterial waste from forest resources that can then be 3D printed into housing or building components.”
The interdisciplinary project, ‘Developing a circular bio-based framework for architecture, engineering and construction through additive manufacturing’, targets what is called the ‘advanced manufacturing industry of the future’.
“We will manufacture 3D-printed wall panels that can be used in housing and building construction,” Via said. “This will allow for precise construction in a manufacturing environment using sustainable materials that can be shipped to the construction site. Through biobased polymers and fibres, we can 3D print building components that allow for end-of-life recycling.”
Research team member Professor Maria Auad, director of the Center Polymer and Advance Composites at Auburn, said the project relies in large part on developing sustainable adhesives derived from renewable forest biomass and other waste resources, typically disposed of in landfills.
“The thematic basis of our proposal is to develop innovative materials that will be environment-friendly, less dependent on depleting petroleum resources and will use natural sources or waste products with the realisation of the impact on the environment that the current generation of composite materials have at the end of their life,” Auad said.
Team member Sushil Adhikari, professor in the College of Agriculture and director of Auburn’s Bioenergy and Bioproducts Center, said it is crucial to find ways to use forest biomass and other agricultural residues to produce resilient buildings with a low carbon footprint. “In this project, we are developing resins and adhesive from waste materials while minimizing the energy input,” Adhikari said. His role is to find ways to produce chemicals using a fast process of pyrolysis—the thermal degradation of plastic waste at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen—for resin synthesis. He will also train graduate students and postdoctoral students who will contribute to circular-based bioeconomy research.
In this research, Maria Soledad Peresin, associate professor of forest biomaterials in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, is focused on nanocellulose production, characterisation and chemical modification to be included in bio-resin formulations to improve the mechanical performance of the composites for 3D printing of housing and building components. “The project offers a unique opportunity to both undergraduate and graduate students to be involved in cutting-edge technologies and sustainable development,” Peresin said.
That educational impact is a key component, Via said, as one endeavour of the research is to train a new STEM-based workforce and scientists for this future industry.