3D printing is a technology that is revolutionising rapid prototyping and the way we produce and customise various goods. At the cutting edge, NASA is about to take the first 3D printer into space and have been testing 3D printed fuel injectors. Are there any downsides to this technology and its adoption as a mass consumer technology?
Prices are certainly falling and although 3D printing is still only in the hands of very early adopters and enthusiasts there is every indication that it will go mainstream.
An interesting article at Science Direct entitled Ultrafine particle (UFP) emissions from desktop 3D printers highlights the potential danger of exposure to UFPs particularly using acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) as the printing material. 3D printing works by heating plastic feedstocks, and this can produce unwanted toxic by-products.
The authors note that:
Many desktop printers rely on heated thermoplastic extrusion and deposition, which is a process that has been shown to have significant aerosol emissions in industrial environments
Because most of these devices are currently sold as standalone devices without any exhaust ventilation or filtration accessories, results herein suggest caution should be used when operating in inadequately ventilated or unfiltered indoor environments
3D printers use several different types of thermoplastics mostly acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) or polylactic acid (PLA). The benefit of PLA is that it is biodegradable and made from plant starch and is therefore renewable. ABS is a stronger thermoplastic, but it is petroleum-based and non-biodegradable. Polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) is biodegradable, recyclable and non-toxic.
ABS is potentially more troublesome as the report notes:
Primary gas-phase products of ABS thermal decomposition at very high temperatures have been shown to include carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide
3D Printing Health Risks
They report suggests that health risks are not merely theoretical:
Several recent epidemiological studies have shown that elevated UFP number concentrations are associated with adverse health effects, including total and cardio-respiratory mortality, hospital admissions for stroke and asthma symptoms.
Therefore, results herein suggest that caution should be used when operating these printing instruments inside unvented or unfiltered indoor environments due to their large emissions of UFPs.
Responsible on-demand printing using renewable and biodegradable materials might have a positive impact compared with mass production methods. Heating plastics in poorly ventilated homes does unsurprisingly prove to be a rather bad idea as the UFP emissions report cautions.