The disposal of plastic waste in the ocean has long been an important area of research in environmental protection. For decades, the marine environment has been affected by the degradation of fossil polymers (the vast majority of plastic products), which accumulate on beaches, oceans and even Arctic sea ice through the flow of ocean currents. To turn the tide, bio-based polymer composites have been created. This suitable alternative to fossil resources can meet the growing demand for marine composites.
Researching these composites is a European project called SeaBioComp. To reduce the ecological impact of plastics, the challenge is to create renewable materials that can withstand the long-term harsh marine environment, and SeaBioComp has developed a flax-based thermoplastic biocomposite. The project has 3D printed several initial prototypes, including fenders and other structures. Research has shown that polymers and composites made from natural raw materials such as biopolymers and biocomposites are seen as potential alternatives to fossil polymers, but with less impact on the environment, such as the formation of microplastics.
SeaBioComp has been actively seeking to create a durable bio-based composite for the marine environment since 2019 with a budget of €4.1 million ($4.2 million), co-funded by the EU's Interreg 2 Seas program. More than half of the funding comes from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), which has funded other 3D printing-related projects in the region, including Portugal's first robot for high-performance and large-format metal 3D printing. SeaBioComp, led by Belgian textile research institute Centexbel, is also conducting analytical work to assess the long-term durability of its materials to reduce ecological impacts on the marine environment.
First, the project has created a self-reinforced polypropylene cross-ester (PLA) composite that has been made into a variety of nonwoven and woven fabrics suitable for compression molding. Second, the team developed a new linen-reinforced PLA or acrylic (PMMA)-reinforced composite that can be used for resin infusion, compression molding, and additive manufacturing through a flexible mold (RIFT) manufacturing process.
After extensive testing of the mechanical properties of various biocomposites developed by SeaBioComp, researchers and experts have concluded that these materials approach and in some cases outperform traditional non-biobased composites, such as Sheet Molding Composites (SMCs) that can now be used in marine environments. The new bio-based products have been shown to use the same compression molding conditions as conventional products, while process cycle times can be shorter.
In addition, the goal of the project is to create products that help reduce the impact on the marine environment, and early research has identified flax as the most suitable natural plant fiber for use as a biocomposite reinforcement. Flax absorbs large amounts of carbon dioxide during growth and cleans the soil through phytoremediation. This method of using plant extracts to remove contaminants reduces their bioavailability in the soil.
To address global sources of marine pollution, the team at SeaBioComp combines thermoplastic polymers, natural fibers and 3D printing technology. In addition to fenders and other structures, SeaBioComp uses large-scale additive manufacturing techniques to create other semi-industrial products, including boat pumps and topsides.
In 2020, SeaBioComp revealed that it relied on FDM printers from Dutch industrial manufacturer Poly Products to 3D print complex structures of biocompliant materials.
In addition to the eco-benefits of the new material, SeaBioComp sees 3D printing as an eco-efficient manufacturing process. Compared to traditional product manufacturing.
● 3D printing of biopolymers is highly eco-efficient because it does not require molds and there is little production waste.
● It is compatible with the sustainable materials developed for the project, and 3D printed products can be recycled at the end of their useful life.