Combatting Deforestation With 3D Printing

Environmental pioneers must celebrate the news of 3D printing disrupting the timber industry.

Environmental pioneers must celebrate the news of 3D printing disrupting deforestation and the timber industry.

A new method for growing material similar to traditional wood possibly eliminates all deforestation while enhancing the already broad uses for 3D printing. 

Currently, industrial forestry eliminates roughly 10 million hectares of forest each year, obviously leading the charge against global deforestation. Therefore, this newfound capacity to create custom “timber” from a lab-based setting reduces waste while enabling forests to remain untouched. 

Scientists at MIT demonstrated how this material is grown from cell cultures, tailored to meet specific property requirements. Like how we have oak, birch, and mahogany, wood-like materials can be grown on demand.

3D Printing “Wood” to Stop Deforestation

In the first stage, the scientists extracted cells inherent to the leaves of young elegant zinnia plants. Then they grew in a liquid base for two days before converting into a gel.

In this second gel stage, the hormones of these cells are adjusted to provide them with specific physical and mechanical properties like density and stiffness. As a result, they behave similar to stem cells, according to our MIT researchers. 

Using 3D printing, or bioprinting, these plant materials could be grown into artificial shapes, sizes, or other forms impossible to achieve through traditional methods. We eliminate deforestation by growing new “wood” and the waste associated with manufacturing and carpentry. 

In other words, manufacturers specify the exact parts needed and their quantities. These materials are then grown to meet specifications, such as strength, durability, color, shape, texture, etc. Again, there is no cutting involved–no second stage beyond transportation. 

“The idea is that you can grow these plant materials in exactly the shape that you need, so you don’t need to do any subtractive manufacturing after the fact, which reduces the amount of energy and waste. There is a lot of potential to expand this and grow three-dimensional structures,” said Ashley Beckwith, the lead author behind the research paper published by Materials Today.

Upgrading On Demand Manufacturing

In this context, a 3D printer produces the gel solutions in their desired form through a petri dish. Thereafter they incubate for three months at a rate roughly double the speed of a tree’s natural growth. 

Lower hormone levels within the culture generally result in plant materials with lower density, while higher hormone levels yield denser and stiffer materials. 

The researchers at MIT acknowledge that this a pioneering study. More research is required to understand how the plant materials can be made more wood-like. In particular, if and how extraction could happen from sources beyond the common zinnia plant—such as the commercially valuable pine.

design and development by