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Some of the Most Surprising 3D Printing Materials Currently Available

Published on January 7, 2022 by Alexandrea P.

3D printing with classic materials such as plastic, metal or ceramics is widespread. In the meantime, however, there are a variety of material alternatives that are not only unusual, but also can make the 3D-printed part even more special. In our selection, we introduce you to these unusual materials. From chocolate to salt to recycled plastic waste or ash, you can now design extraordinary and unusual objects. In some cases, these materials even prove to be an excellent alternative to plastic, reducing over-consumption and the environmental impact that comes with it. Today, we’re taking a look at these surprising materials for 3D printing that you might not expect at first glance.

3D printing material from the sea

Filaments are still the most commonly used materials for 3D printing today, mainly because FDM machines are easily accessible. But did you know that some filaments are already made from shellfish and crustaceans? French company Francofil offers materials made from PLA and the shells of mussels, scallops and oysters. These shells come from recycled food service waste and are crushed to be made into filaments. The materials are manufactured in France and can be printed like conventional PLA.

Photo Credits: Francofil

Locally sourced salt

Emerging Objects is an American company that uses new technologies with innovative materials to create impressive projects. Among the most outstanding initiatives is Saltygloo, a structure made by 3D printing salt. The salt used was collected locally in San Francisco Bay. About 500,000 tons of sea salt are produced here annually due to the climatic conditions. The salt was used to additively manufacture lightweight structures on a large scale. In addition to Saltygloo, the company is known for other salt projects, such as the GEOtube tower and the construction of houses.

Photo Credits: Matthew Millman

Chocolate, the sweetest 3D printing material

This 3D printing material may not be as exceptional as some of the others on the list, but it is certainly among the most commonly used. The chocolate 3D printing process is similar to FDM technology, but it has different cooling properties than plastic, so the process takes longer. The popularity of this technology has increased over the years, prompting many companies to develop various projects and even chocolate 3D printers. Among the most famous is the collaboration between 3D Systems and Hershey’s, one of the largest chocolate manufacturers. We have also featured some 3D printers that can make delicious sweets, such as mycusini or Print2Taste. If you want to learn more about this technology, don’t miss the video below.

3D printing material from ashes to remember your loved ones

The Spanish company Narbón is dedicated to introducing new technologies and innovations in the funeral sector. The 3DMemories service uses 3D printing to create original, unique and exclusive ceramic jewelry from the ashes, hair, DNA or skeletal remains of a loved one. To do this, the pattern must be processed and then combined with porcelain before the jewelry can be 3D printed. Then the enamel is applied and the piece is fixed. The service offers a range of products for men and women. Undoubtedly, 3DMemories with its range of jewelry represents an exceptional way to remember the loved one.

Photo Credits: Narbón

Wood-based filaments

Wood- or plant-based filaments have also been available on the market for some time. For example, the Dutch company ColorFabb offers several filament alternatives in this category. What began in 2014 with BambooFill was expanded in the years that followed with CorkFill and WoodFill. The wood fibers are typically mixed into a PLA/PHA base and give parts a natural, high-quality finish. Whether used to make figurines, furniture pieces or wall decorations, the filaments can be used wherever a wooden look is desirable. While ColorFabb has since discontinued its BambooFill, a similar product can be purchased in the form of Wood Bamboo from AzureFilm. According to the company, 40% recycled wood is mixed with 60% polymers for this purpose. However, to avoid problems when printing with this filament, it is recommended to reduce the printing speed. With Entwined™, the US company Fuel 3D also offers a sustainable PLA-based filament with hemp additive.

Left: ColorFabb, Right: Azure Film

A different use for linen

Another alternative to traditional filaments is a composite material made of PLA and flax from French manufacturer Nanovia. The company says that this composite material is not only a sustainable alternative to traditional filaments, but also offers the possibility of obtaining different shades of brown by applying different printing parameters. This can be achieved by simply changing the printing temperature during the manufacturing process. As far as finishing is concerned, the manufacturer recommends sealing the printed parts with a UV protection treatment so that the printed parts remain intact as long as possible.

Photo Credits: Nanovia. 

3D printing with sugar

Sugar Lab was acquired by 3D Systems almost ten years ago, but spun out in 2020 and refounded as a direct-to-consumer specialty confections 3D printing company. Using the Brill 3D Culinary Studio, which was originally developed by 3D Systems and called ChefJet Pro, the company creates candy and decorations in complex shapes. The Los Angeles-based company says it is capable of producing candies in all flavors and colors. Whether it’s for birthdays, weddings or Christmas parties, The Sugar Lab offers all kinds of candy from the 3D printer. And as for quantity, the 3D printer seems to be able to produce hundreds of confections per day. While The Sugar Lab is the most well-known company using sugar as a printing material, other companies such as The Modernist Cuisine are also trying their hand at 3D printing with sugar.

3D printing with glass

Glass has been popular in numerous industries for many years and is also used in additive manufacturing. Several researchers, for example from MIT or Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), have developed 3D printing solutions to make glass printable. For example, the MIT team developed the G3DP2 machine, which can process 5 kg of glass per hour. With this machine, the researchers managed to create 3-meter-high glass columns at Milan Design Week. Recently, the startup Glassomer also presented its technology for 3D printing glass. The company is developing a material made of fine glass powder and plastic binder that can be processed by SLA printers.

surprising 3D printing materials

Photo Credits: Glassomer

Filaments made from recycled plastic

The topic of sustainability is increasingly coming into focus in the field of additive manufacturing, which is why many companies are looking for alternatives. In recent years, several interesting products have been developed that aim to make 3D printing more sustainable by producing filaments from recycled plastic. One such project is Print The City by The New Raw, where plastics from the waste of Amsterdam and Thessaloniki residents are converted into 3D printing filament and used to print benches and other street furniture. Another initiative is the Million Waves Project, which aims to produce filament from recycled PET to 3D print prosthetic limbs for those in need. Another example is the ZUV tricycle, which was printed in Austria by EOOS using filaments made from 70 kilos of plastic waste from supermarkets in Vienna.

Photo Credits: The New Raw

A 3D printing material inspired by ivory

Among the multitude of materials used for 3D printing, there are some that have been developed ad hoc to meet specific requirement and solve old problems in an innovative way. One such material is Digory, which was developed by the University of Vienna in collaboration with Cubicure GmbH to meet the need for restoration of ancient monuments and objects made of ivory. It is a synthetic resin containing calcium phosphate particles and silicon oxide powder. Researchers have developed this new material with ivory-like characteristics and properties to restore objects using 3D printing or SLA technology. The similarity between the two materials is remarkable – there is hardly any difference!

The digory material on the right, is very similar to the real ivory on the left (photo credits: Vienna University of Technology)

Clay as a more sustainable 3D printing material

One unusual 3D printing material that has certainly been getting notice in recent years is clay. Technically a subsection of ceramic 3D printing, which, though difficult to print with, is known for its incredible properties, the use of clay in particular has been especially popularized through the work of Italian company WASP. For example, we recently saw that WASP and Honda have been using clay 3D printing to create more sustainable vehicles. There are many other usages as well, though many center on sustainability due to clay’s properties. This can be seen with projects like archiREEF’s terracotta tiles to restore coral in Hong Kong or 3D printed clay containers designed to reduce food waste.

surprising 3D printing materials

Photo Credits: Jonathan Keep

Diamond – 3D printing the hardest material on Earth

It may come as a surprise to many that it is in fact possible to 3D print one of the hardest materials on Earth, diamond. Back in 2019, Sandvik Additive Manufacturing announced that it had made the first ever 3D printed diamond composite. Though it does not sparkle, it would allow manufacturers to 3D print with this super-hard material, helping to revolutionize especially the tooling industry. Diamond has often been used in industries as far-ranged as mining and drilling to machining and medical implants especially because of its wear-resistant properties, but it is hard to machine. With this composite breakthrough, Sandvik claims that it is now possible to 3D print the material in highly complex shapes, and the company has high hopes for its applications in the near future.

Printing with human cells

When it comes to 3D printing in the medical sector, often people’s minds turn to bioprinting. In bioprinting, cellular structures, including human ones, are made from bioinks which have been loaded with stem cells. Like in regular 3D printing, the biomaterial can then be deposited layer by layer to make things like skin, tissue, bone and even organs. Though it is still relatively in its infancy as a technology when it comes to creating viable long-term solutions, already we have seen a number of exciting projects using the technology. Notably, researchers have experimented with 3D printing organs including a heart, a kidney, a pancreas and a liver, among others. Others have also devised a way to bioprint with ceramics and bioinks to recreate bones within the human body. You can find out more information in the video below.

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