Week in Plastics

by by David Adler

Print Out Your Ear

Always begin with the infomercial. Does your newborn love eating dirt? Print him a pacifier! Are you missing a tooth? Print one! Are there ants in your kitchen? Print them an ant house!

The 3D printer is like a one-size-fits-all everything. For just $500 (See: Portabee’s Complete Kit), own one that can fit in a laptop case and have a little bitty industrial revolution in your bedroom. Take a nice big picture or draw one in your computer, and then, like some combination of Creepy Crawlers and the Easy Bake Oven, tah dah! Little robotic hands move around and add successive layers of plastic to make the object of your desire.

Michael Guslick is psyched in Wisconsin, Chapman Baetzel in New Hampshire, and Cody Wilson in Texas—all three made firearms from their 3D printers. Guslick is an amateur gunsmith (those exist) and made his after a Craigslist purchase. Baetzel just thought it would be cheaper; more Tecate at the shooting range, he drooled. Wilson, the kind of guy who wears white pants and tucks a pen into his front pocket, is trying to make some sort of point about the futility of gun control. “It’s unbannable,” Wilson said, reclining. “The Internet has it now.” The NRA was at a loss for words. As was Washington: big talk for big change, and now anyone can print a big gun and hurt people. It’s the 21st century, and plastic reigns supreme, stretching over us like some evil condom.

Cornell University, meanwhile, is excited about condoms. Professor Lawrence Bonassar and his team of biomedical engineers have figured out a way to use the 3D printing technology to print out human body parts. “We think that the real leap forward here,” Bonassar explained, is “figuring out how to make that toner or ink out of living tissue.”

Bonassar is kind of inventing a new vocabulary. The caption to one picture of the professor in his lab says “Lawrence Bonassar with a printed ear.” A printed ear. They scan the head with a camera, then they print using real cartilage cells—layer by layer—and out comes a living ear. Attach it to your face or keep it by your bedside to tell your secrets to. One of the researchers in his lab called it “fantastic.”

I don’t know. It’s all pretty scary. I was thinking that the major innovations of 2013 were going to be things like the BagelMuffin or a version of Snapchat that uses .gifs. Skynet seems lame now. We can print real pigs! Or giants! —DA

Mystery Meat

Never throw away a tender steak. Meat is too precious to waste. So is blood meal, a dry powder derived by steam-drying the afterslop of industrial slaughterhouses. At least, that’s what the inventors of Novatein are saying.

Novatein is a blood-meal-based plastic currently under development by Aduro Biopolymers, a New Zealand firm. Novatein’s physical properties will be comparable to those of polyethylene, one of the world’s most common plastics, and developers aim for the plastic to be sold at a comparably cheap price. And don’t worry about gore-colored plastic bags at the grocery store: Aduro claims to have modified the deep maroon of blood meal to a pleasant “translucent honey.”

Some investors seem eager. Aduro CEO Darren Harpur told Plastic News that the “red-meat industry in Australia [has] shown a great deal of interest.” Aduro, which was established by a subsidiary of New Zealand’s University of Waikato, aims to begin commercial production by 2016.

Using agricultural waste to improve manufactured goods is not new. Crops from sugar cane to maize are often used to create bioplastics for industrial purposes. And Pirelli, the Italian manufacturer, is now using incinerated rice husks to add desired springiness to auto tires. Bioplastics are typically advantageous for their biodegradability and for the low costs of their source materials. Aduro claims that Novatein will be even better: production costs, often a hurdle for bioplastics firms, are expected to be low.

Novatein will be used primarily for agricultural and horticultural applications: sheeting, pegs, bowls, bags, and other knick-knacks. The plastic will not be food-grade. Concretely, that means you won’t be able to eat steak from a plate made from a cow. But a cow might be able to: blood meal is also a common supplement in livestock feed. So just grab a slab of Novatein, load it up with fodder, and give it to a bovine. Wait a few minutes: soon, the world will have bumped into its own tail one too many times, and you will disappear. —SE