The Future of 3D Printing

Most people are probably familiar with the concept of ‘Printing’ and take it as commonplace. Simply holding down the keys “Ctrl+P” will print any page displayed on most monitors. For this generation, the printer is almost taken for granted, and not much is put into how the printer works. Whilst your printer is whirring, and you are waiting for that last page of a document that has been hours in the making to print, simple science is taking place within your printer. Because of electrostatic electricity, ink is sprayed onto a page and attracted to precise areas in order to imitate the image that you want to be printed. All this happens in a short time and no-one would think it was very complicated to print a page. What would people think about 3-D printing?

The technology for 3-D printers has been around for a while yet in the last two years, 3-D printers’ sales, for the household, has risen dramatically. This indicates that 3-D printers are manufactured with a long term aim; 3-D printers should be available to all consumers. The implications of a 3-D printer as commonplace in the household are quite substantive. For example, any physical possession could be purchased to print, just as easily as one could download music to be listened to only moments later.

A 3-D printer works much like the laser printer currently does. Just as nozzles spray toner onto paper, in a 3-D printer a nozzle squirts molten plastic resin in horizontal layers onto a base plate, which then cools, sometimes aided by exposure to UV light. This section drops away from the nozzle and the process is repeated, building up layer-by-layer until the model is finished.

There are many potential problems which remain unsolved. For instance, complicated models would take hours to finish and might need different materials to strengthen certain parts. Furthermore, just as  if the quality of the printed page is not sufficient, the quality of the object printed by a 3-D printer may not be sufficient. However, while a page can be reprinted in seconds, a model that has taken hours in the making would be very irritating if it was produced with a defect.

One possible purpose of a 3-D printer could be its role in printing replacement parts. For example, instead of buying popular consoles, many people use their PC as a platform to play video games. This improves their PC’s invariably with different parts such as graphics cards, which enhance their gaming experience. Using a 3-D printer, these parts could be easily printed and used. On one hand, this would require printing an object made of more than just the spool of plastic found within these printers.  On the other hand, it may be possible to develop 3-D printers in conjunction with automated circuit board etchings to print electric components. Creating these “hybrid” printers could give birth to anything being printed as long as the printer was used in conjunction with the right object.

On a final point, if anything could be printed and these printers became used by the majority of people, the chances are that copyright laws would be broken very quickly because it would be very possible to design, on a computer, a component identical to a component designed by a corporation, which is then manufactured by the 3-D printer. However, this problems occurs with all revolutionary technology, and ‘revolutionary’ is an adjective that should be  ascribed to a 3-D printer, considering all the possibilities this offers us. With this technology available, it would be a shame to let politics and law prevent this fascinating technology becoming part of our lives.

Contributed by Zia Farooq

Creating gasoline from air

Barack Obama has attempted to ease New York’s fuel shortages, caused by hurricane Sandy, through distributing 11,000 gallons of  so-called “free Obama gas”. This has prompted reports of “panic at the pumps” as New York motorists engaged in a mad rush for this free supply of gasoline.

This story demonstrates society’s reliance on gasoline. Although there are constant warnings that gasoline will run out and that we must resort to other forms of energy, the recent events in New York suggest otherwise. Have we run out of options? The discovery of producing gasoline from air, at Air Fuel Synthesis (AFS), may give us another option.

In an experiment, AFS extracted oxygen, carbon and hydrogen, from carbon dioxide, and water, from the air, to form methanol which is then converted into gasoline. As consequence, this process produces half a litre of purified gasoline per day, using just air as a raw material. To explain further, carbon dioxide is extracted or “snagged” by passing air through a sodium hydroxide mist, causing sodium carbonate to form. Next, water is taken from this same air through a condenser. Then, in order to produce methanol (CH3OH), electrolysis is used to extract the required hydrogen, from the water, and the required carbon and oxygen, from the sodium carbonate, to create methanol. This methanol is then converted to gasoline through polymerisation (adding many molecules together).

The implications of this method are staggering because not only is the air around us readily available, but the process involves extracting carbon dioxide from the air. This means that any carbon dioxide produced by burning the gasoline would be extracted in making more gasoline. Therefore, using this gasoline would be carbon neutral, so long as the machinery involved in this process was powered by renewable energy sources such as solar or wind power.

However, before this method of gasoline synthesis from air is touted as the future of energy, the energy efficiency of this process must be considered. Substantive energy is required for this process and to ensure the process is carbon neutral, this energy must be generated by renewable energy sources, which have high capital costs. Therefore, this venture would only be heavily invested in, if the energy produced is used more frequently and if there is good profit return for investors, within the process i.e. energy efficiency.

In the final analysis, it is too early to know how to optimise the energy efficiency of this gasoline synthesis method. The energy efficiency currently is quite poor because the use of electrolysis within the process, as a cost effective and efficient way of splitting hydrogen from water, has not yet been found. AFS themselves say that further testing of efficiency is needed and that they need bigger factories for more research. Yet, AFS claimed the motorsport industry is taking an interest in their work because they are keen to reduce their own fossil fuel dependency. Despite the problems, this long term prospect of creating gasoline from air is an exciting one.

Contributed by Zia Farooq