3D Printing ProcessesAM ResearchArchitectureConstruction 3D PrintingSustainability

Nanocellulose and algae used to 3D print architectural material

The team from Chalmers University of Technology and the Wallenberg Wood Science Center used nanocellulose fibers and water, with the addition of alginate, to produce a sustainable 3D printable material

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A new study from Chalmers University of Technology, in Sweden, and the Wallenberg Wood Science Center, shows how a hydrogel material made of nanocellulose and algae can be used as an alternative, greener architectural material. The abundant material can be 3D printed into a wide array of architectural components – using much less energy than conventional construction methods.

According to the university, the construction industry today consumes 50% of the world’s fossil resources, generates 40% of global waste, and causes 39% of global carbon dioxide emissions. There is a growing line of research into biomaterials and their applications, to transition to a greener future – in line with, for example, the European Green Deal.

Nanocellulose’s properties as a hydrogel are known within the field of biomedicine, where it can be 3D printed into scaffolds for tissue and cell growth, due to its biocompatibility and wetness. However, it has never before proven to be useful as a dried architectural material.

“For the first time, we have explored an architectural application of nanocellulose hydrogel. Specifically, we provided the so far missing knowledge on its design-related features, and showcased, with the help of our samples and prototypes, the tuneability of these features through custom digital design and robotic 3D printing,” said Malgorzata Zboinska, lead author of the study from Chalmers University of Technology.

The team used nanocellulose fibers and water, with the addition of an algae-based material called alginate – which allowed the researchers to produce a 3D printable material since the alginate added extra flexibility to the material when it dried.

Cellulose is known as the most abundant eco-friendly alternative to plastic, as it is one of the byproducts of the world’s largest industries. “The nanocellulose used in this study can be acquired from forestry, agriculture, paper mills, and straw residues from agriculture. It is a very abundant material in that sense,” said Zboinska.

A resource-efficient technique

The architectural industry is surrounded by access to digital technologies which allows for a wider range of new techniques to be used, but there is a gap in the knowledge of how these techniques can be applied. According to the European Green Deal, as of 2030, buildings in Europe must be more resource-efficient – this can be achieved through elevated reuse and recycling of materials, such as with nanocellulose, an upcycled, byproduct from industry. At the same time as buildings are to become more circular, cutting-edge digital techniques are highlighted as important leverages for achieving these goals.

“3D printing is a very resource-efficient technique. It allows us to make products without other things such as dies and casting forms, so there is less waste material. It is also very energy efficient. The robotic 3D printing system we employ does not use heat, just air pressure. This saves a lot of energy as we are only working at room temperature,” said Zboinska.

The energy-efficient process relies on the shear-thinning properties of the nanocellulose hydrogel. When you apply pressure, it liquifies – allowing it to be 3D printed. When you take away the pressure it maintains its shape. This allows the researchers to work without the energy-intensive processes that are commonplace in the construction industry.

Malgorzata Zboinska and her team designed many different toolpaths to be used in the robotic 3D printing process to see how the nanocellulose hydrogel would behave when it dried in different shapes and patterns. These dried shapes could then be applied as a basis to design a wide array of architectural standalone components, such as lightweight room dividers, blinds, and wall panel systems. They could also form the basis for coatings of existing building components, such as tiles to clad walls, acoustic elements for damping sound, and combined with other materials to clad skeleton walls.

Greener building materials

“Traditional building materials are designed to last for hundreds of years. Usually, they have predictable behaviors and homogenous properties. We have concrete, glass, and all kinds of hard materials that endure and we know how they will age over time. Contrary to this, biobased materials contain organic matter, that is from the outset designed to biodegrade and cycle back into nature. We, therefore, need to acquire completely new knowledge on how we could apply them in architecture, and how we could embrace their shorter life cycle loops and heterogenous behavior patterns, resembling more those found in nature rather than in an artificial and fully controlled environment. Design researchers and architects are now intensely searching for ways of designing products made from these materials, both for function and for aesthetics,” said Zboinska.

This study provides the first steps to demonstrate the upscaling potentials of ambient-dried, 3D printed nanocellulose membrane constructs, as well as a new understanding of the relationship between the design of the material’s deposition pathways via 3D printing, and the dimensional, textural, and geometric effects in the final constructs. This knowledge is a necessary stepping stone that will allow Malgorzata Zboinska and her team to develop, through further research, applications of nanocellulose in architectural products that meet specific functional and aesthetic user requirements.

“The yet not fully known properties of novel bio-based materials prompt architectural researchers to establish alternative approaches to designing these new products, not only in terms of the functional qualities, but also the acceptance from the users. The aesthetics of biobased materials are an important part of this. If we are to propose these bio-based materials to society and people, we need to work with the design as well. This becomes a very strong element for the acceptance of these materials. If people do not accept them, we will not reach the goals of a circular economy and sustainable built environment,” said Zboinska.

More about the research

The research titled ‘Robotically 3D printed architectural membranes from ambient dried cellulose nanofibril-alginate hydrogel’, is published in the journal Materials and Design. The researchers involved in the study include Malgorzata A. Zboinska, Sanna Sämfors, and Paul Gatenholm.

This work was supported by the Adlerbertska Research Foundation and Chalmers University of Technology’s Area of Advance Materials Science. The Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation is acknowledged for funding the Wallenberg Wood Science Center. The authors would also like to recognize the contribution of Karl Åhlund, who assisted in the robotic extrusion system development.

Printing with nanocellulose was first developed at Chalmers University of Technology within the Wallenberg Wood Science Center in 2015, but this is the first time this technology is being scaled towards applications in buildings.

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