PLA: The Plastic That Grows

If you’ve ever taken a coast-to-coast car trip across the United States, the one thing that’s sure to impress you is the mind-bogglingly immense amount of corn that we grow here. If you take the northern route — I’ve done it seven times, so I know it by heart — you’ll see almost nothing but corn from Ohio to Montana. The size of the fields is simply staggering, and you’re left wondering, “Do we really eat all this corn?”

The simple answer is no, we don’t. We grow way more corn than we can eat or, once turned into alcohol, drink. We do feed a lot to animals, many of which subsequently end up as burgers or pork chops. But even after all that, and after accounting for exports, we still have a heck of a lot of corn to put to work. There are lots of industrial uses for this surplus corn, though, and chances are pretty good you’ve got an ear or two worth coiled up next to your 3D-printer, in the form of polylactic acid, or PLA.

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Spot Welding …Plastic?

Plastic milk bottles, when your project or prototype needs an urgent source of plastic, they are often the first thing to hand. Convenient and flexible, but strong at the same time and usually free, they’re the ultimate source of material in a pinch. However, when it comes to actually manipulating the HDPE plastic they’re made from, there’s often a challenge. It’s easy to cut, but not so easy to join. Conventional glues can have a hard time, making it difficult to bond.

Enter [zimitt], and a spot welding solution for joining HDPE with ease. Ok, so ‘spot welding’ might be a little optimistic given the speed of this process, but it’s useful nonetheless. To heat the plastic, a cheap soldering iron is recommended. A low wattage, straight-to-the-wall one does well, especially as they commonly have the washer-style end shown in the picture. To protect the plastic from burning, a BBQ mat is used – they’re temperature resistant and usually made with a PTFE surface.

First, place the two sheets of plastic face to face and sandwich top and bottom with the BBQ mat. Apply some heat to the mat with the soldering iron then, after a few seconds, remove the iron and provide pressure with a flat object to bond the plastic. [zimitt] used an espresso tamper for this which was ideal.

The results are impressive, and [zimitt] experiments with different plastics as well. Of course, you should exercise caution when attempting anything like this, given the health risks present when heating up different types of plastic.

HDPE is easy to recycle at home, and we’ve seen a lot of great uses: a plastic joiner’s mallet, plastic tiles, and even a filament extruder for 3D printing.

Slipcasting Resin Prototypes

[Eric Strebel] doesn’t need an introduction anymore. If there is a picture of an elegantly designed part with a professional finish on our pages, there is a good chance he has a hand in it. This time he is sharing his method of making a part which looks like it is blow-molded but it is not. Blow-molded parts have a distinctive look, especially made with a transparent material and [Eric’s] method certainly passes for it. This could upgrade your prototyping game if you need a few custom parts that look like solidified soap bubbles.

Mold making is not covered in this video, which can also be seen below the break, but we can help you out with a tip or two. For demonstration’s sake, we see the creation of a medical part which has some irregular surfaces. Resin is mixed and degassed then rolled around inside the mold. Then, the big reveal, resin is allowed to drain from the mold. Repeat to achieve the desired thickness.

This is a technique adapted from ceramics called slipcasting. For the curious, an elegant ceramic slipcasting video demonstration can be seen below as well. For an added finishing touch, watch how a laquer logo is applied to the finished part; a touch that will move the look of your build beyond that of a slapdash prototype.

More education from this prolific maker can be seen in his video on painting with a professional-looking finish and his tips for working with foam-core.

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The Metabolizer Turns Trash into Treasure

The amount of stuff we humans throw away is too damn high, and a bunch of it harms the ecosystem. But what are you gonna do? [Sam Smith] thinks we can do better than shoving most of it in a landfill and waiting for it to break down. That’s why he’s building The Metabolizer. It’s a series of systems designed to turn household trash (including plastic!) into useful things like fuel, building materials, and 3D prints.

The idea is to mimic the metabolism of a living organism and design something that can break down garbage into both useful stuff and fuel for itself. [Sam] is confident that since humans figured out how to make plastic, we can figure out a system to metabolize it. His proof-of-concept plan is to break down waste into combustible, gaseous fuel and use that fuel to power a small engine. The engine will power an open-source plastic shredder and turn a generator that powers an open-source plastic pellet printer like the SeeMeCNC Part Daddy.

Shredding plastic for use as a biomass requires condensing out the tar and hydrocarbons. This process leaves carbon monoxide and hydrogen syngas, which is perfect for running a Briggs & Stratton from Craigslist that’s been modified to run on gaseous fuel. Condensation is a nasty process that we don’t advise trying unless you know what you’re doing. Be careful, [Sam], because we’re excited to watch this one progress. You can watch it chew up some plastic after the break.

If [Sam] ever runs out of garbage to feed The Metabolizer, maybe he could build a fleet of trash-collecting robots.

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Recycling and Casting Styrofoam with Solvents

Styrofoam is an ever-present waste material in modern society, being used to package everything from food to futons. It’s also not the easiest thing to deal with as a waste stream, either. With this in mind, [killbox] decided to have a go at recycling some styrofoam and putting it to better use.

The process starts by combining the EPS styrofoam with a solvent called D-limonene. This was specifically chosen due to its low toxicity and ease of use. The solvent liquifies the solid foam and the air bubbles are then allowed to make their way out of the solution. If it’s desired to create a coloured end product, it’s noted that this can be achieved by using other plastic items to provide colour at this stage, such as a red Solo cup.

It’s a slow process thanks to the choice of solvent, but it makes the process much more palatable to carry out in the average home lab setup. It’s possible to then perform casting operations or further work with the recovered material, which could have some interesting applications. It’s not the first plastics recycling project we’ve seen, either – check out this full setup.

[Thanks to Adric for the tip!]

3D Printering: Printing Sticks for a PLA Hot Glue Gun

When is a hot glue stick not a hot glue stick? When it’s PLA, of course! A glue gun that dispenses molten PLA instead of hot glue turned out to be a handy tool for joining 3D-printed objects together, once I had figured out how to print my own “glue” sticks out of PLA. The result is a bit like a plus-sized 3D-printing pen, but much simpler and capable of much heavier extrusion. But it wasn’t quite as simple as shoving scrap PLA into a hot glue gun and mashing the trigger; a few glitches needed to be ironed out.

Why Use a Glue Gun for PLA?

Some solutions come from no more than looking at two dissimilar things while in the right mindset, and realizing they can be mashed together. In this case I had recently segmented a large, hollow, 3D model into smaller 3D-printer-sized pieces and printed them all out, but found myself with a problem. I now had a large number of curved, thin-walled pieces that needed to be connected flush with one another. These were essentially butt joints on all sides — the weakest kind of joint — offering very little surface for gluing. On top of it all, the curved surfaces meant clamping was impractical, and any movement of the pieces while gluing would result in other pieces not lining up.

An advantage was that only the outside of my hollow model was a presentation surface; the inside could be ugly. A hot glue gun is worth considering for a job like this. The idea would be to hold two pieces with the presentation sides lined up properly with each other, then anchor the seams together by applying melted glue on the inside (non-presentation) side of the joint. Let the hot glue cool and harden, and repeat. It’s a workable process, but I felt that hot glue just wasn’t the right thing to use in this case. Hot glue can be slow to cool completely, and will always have a bit of flexibility to it. I wanted to work fast, and I wanted the joints to be hard and stiff. What I really wanted was melted PLA instead of glue, but I had no way to do it. Friction welding the 3D-printed pieces was a possibility but I doubted how maneuverable my rotary tool would be in awkward orientations. I was considering ordering a 3D-printing pen to use as a small PLA spot welder when I laid eyes on my cheap desktop glue gun.

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Fresh-Baked Plastic Tiles For All!

Recycling aims to better the planet, but — taken into the hands of the individual — it can be a boon for one’s home by trading trash for building materials. [fokkejongerden], a student at the [Delft University of Technology] in the Netherlands, proposes one solution for all the plastic that passes through one’s dwelling by turning HDPE into tiles.

Collecting several HDPE containers — widely used and easy enough to process at home — [fokkejongerden] cleaned them thoroughly of their previous contents, and then mulched them with a food processor. An aluminium mold of the tile was  then welded together making sure the sides were taller than the height of the tile. A second part was fabricated as a top piece to compress the tile into shape.

After preheating an oven to no hotter than 200 degrees Celsius, they lined the mold with parchment paper and baked the tile until shiny(90-120 minutes). The top piece was weighed down (clamping works too), compressing the tile until it cooled. A heat gun or a clothes iron did the trick to smooth out any rough edges.

Not only does [fokkejongerden]’s tiles give the recycler plenty of artistic freedom for creating their own mosaic floor, the real gem is the adaptable plastic recycling process for home use. For another method, check out this recycled, recycling factory that turns bottles in to rope and more! There’s even the potential for fueling your 3D printer.

[Via Instructables]