Dr. Rob Singer

Waste Not–Want Not

Finding a Planet-friendly “Ink” for Bioprinting

By Suzanne Robicheau | spring 2016

Dr. Rob Singer smiles as he examines a beaker filled with sludge from a paper mill’s recovery boiler. What most people see as chemical waste looks like a golden opportunity to the Saint Mary’s University Chemistry professor and his collaborators at Thinking Robot Studios (TRS), a Nova Scotia company that uses 3D printers to manufacture patient-specific, biomedical devices like artificial hips or prosthetic limbs.

The muck fuelling their optimism is lignin, a tough, biodegradable polymer that could revolutionize 3D printing as it reduces our eco footprint. While some scientists look for new ways to eliminate it as a byproduct of the pulping process, Dr. Singer and a team of Saint Mary’s researchers think it has a positive use. Thanks to a National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grant, they are hard at work assessing the feasibility of using local sources of lignin and other waste bio-mass to feed TRS’s large-scale industrial 3D printers. 

“It’s really the ultimate value-added product,” says Gregor Ash, Director of Global Projects for Thinking Robot Studios. “What better value proposition than sourcing locally available materials that would otherwise be thrown away?”

The 3D printer uses computer-assisted drawings to fabricate 3D models, laying down successive layers of powder, liquid, or sheet materials and fusing them together to make objects that range from rocket components, drones, and auto parts to dental implants, hearing aids, and prosthetic limbs. It’s now even possible to print human organs and tissue for specific individuals.

“The 3D printing revolution is redefining global manufacturing, including opportunities for on-demand, patient-specific implant solutions,” says Ash. “Part of this revolution will be driven by replacing costly, hard-to-find materials with locally-sourced ones that decrease costs, improve and diversify products, and minimize our overall eco footprint.”

In a collaboration brokered by Saint Mary’s University’s Office of Innovation and Community Engagement, TRS is working with Dr. Singer to unlock the hidden potential in Atlantic Canada’s abundant biomass waste. As a scientist who dedicates his research to reducing and eliminating the hazardous substances in chemical products, Singer sees tremendous potential in this kind of tech-driven research. He’s also excited at the prospect of finding organic, bioegradable alternatives to the costly powders, plastics, and resins currently used in 3D printing.

“We’re hoping to use something that’s typically discarded to supply the needs of a state-of-the-art manufacturer located, not in Boston or Chicago, but right here in Nova Scotia,” says Dr. Singer. “It’s a winning proposition.”

Gregor Ash also sees great potential in the collaboration, including the possibility of selling waste bio-mass as feedstock for the growing 3D manufacturing sector. “TRS is positioned at the forefront of the current revolution in advanced manufacturing,” he says. “The partnership with Saint Mary’s could secure our place well into the future.”

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