Bone-like 3D-Printed Composite Material

Nature has an extraordinary knack for producing composite materials that are simultaneously light and strong, porous and rigid – like mollusk shells or bone. But producing such materials in a lab or factory – particularly using environmentally friendly materials and processes – is extremely challenging. Researchers in the Soft Materials Laboratory of EPFL in Switzerland turned to nature for a solution. They have pioneered a 3D printable ink that contains Sporosarcina pasteurii: a bacterium which, when exposed to a urea-containing solution, triggers a mineralization process that produces calcium carbonate (CaCO3). The upshot is that the researchers can use their ink – dubbed BactoInk – to 3D-print virtually any shape, which will then gradually mineralize over the course of a few days.

3D printing is gaining increasing importance in general, but the number of materials that can be 3D printed is limited for the simple reason that inks must fulfil certain flow conditions,” explains lab head Esther Amstad. “For example, they must behave like a solid when at rest, but still be extrudable through a 3D printing nozzle – sort of like ketchup.”

Amstad explains that 3D printing inks containing small mineral particles have previously been used to meet some of these flow criteria, but that the resulting structures tend to be soft, or to shrink upon drying, leading to cracking and loss of control over the shape of the final product. “So, we came up with a simple trick: instead of printing minerals, we printed a polymeric scaffold using our BactoInk, which is then mineralized in a second, separate step. After about four days, the mineralization process triggered by the bacteria in the scaffold leads to a final product with a mineral content of over 90%.” The result is a strong and resilient bio-composite, which can be produced using a standard 3D printer and natural materials, and without the extreme temperatures often required for manufacturing ceramics. Final products no longer contain living bacteria, as they are submerged in ethanol at the end of the mineralization process.

A paper on the study was recently published in the journal Materials Today.


How To Recycle Plastic Infinitely And Reduce Plastic Pollution

The scientists who re-engineered the plastic-eating enzyme PETase have now created an enzymecocktail’ which can digest plastic up to six times faster. A second enzyme, found in the same rubbish dwelling bacterium that lives on a diet of plastic bottles, has been combined with PETase to speed up the breakdown of plasticPETase breaks down polyethylene terephthalate (PET) back into its building blocks, creating an opportunity to recycle plastic infinitely and reduce plastic pollution and the greenhouse gases driving climate change. PET is the most common thermoplastic, used to make single-use drinks bottles, clothing and carpets and it takes hundreds of years to break down in the environment, but PETase can shorten this time to days.

The team was co-led by the scientists who engineered PETaseProfessor John McGeehan, Director of the Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI) at the University of Portsmouth in UK, and Dr Gregg Beckham, Senior Research Fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in the US. “Gregg and I were chatting about how PETase attacks the surface of the plastics and MHETase chops things up further, so it seemed natural to see if we could use them together, mimicking what happens in nature,” said  Professor McGeehan

Our first experiments showed that they did indeed work better together, so we decided to try to physically link them, like two Pac-men joined by a piece of string. “It took a great deal of work on both sides of the Atlantic, but it was worth the effort – we were delighted to see that our new chimeric enzyme is up to three times faster than the naturally evolved separate enzymes, opening new avenues for further improvements.

The initial discovery set up the prospect of a revolution in plastic recycling, creating a potential low-energy solution to tackle plastic waste. The team engineered the natural PETase enzyme in the laboratory to be around 20 percent faster at breaking down PET. Now, the same trans-Atlantic team have combined PETase and its ‘partner’, a second enzyme called MHETase, to generate much bigger improvements: simply mixing PETase with MHETase doubled the speed of PET breakdown, and engineering a connection between the two enzymes to create a ‘super-enzyme’, increased this activity by a further three times.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.