Skip to main content

Samarthya Bhagia: 3D printing with biomass-based materials

Samarthya Bhagia: 3D printing with biomass-based materials

Samarthya Bhagia is developing advanced renewable materials for 3D printing at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Bhagia works with plant geneticists at the lab to tailor the properties of biomass — from the plant genes to the final printed products.

Conventional thermoplastics for 3D printing are derived from petroleum. Bhagia focuses on replacing those feedstocks with high-performance materials made from lignocellulosic biomass, such as grasses and woody plants. Using biomass to make biomaterials can reduce carbon dioxide emissions and support a circular economy.

Bhagia has a background in biomass conversion for production of cellulosic ethanol and renewable chemicals, analysis of plant structures, and manufacturing and characterization of wood-plastic composites.

What climate-related problem are you working on?

One of my research areas involves development of advanced materials such as 3D-printable, biomass-filled thermoplastics. Polylactic acid, for instance, is a thermoplastic made from lactic acid. Lactic acid can be made by fermenting the sugars in biomass. Polylactic acid has lower net-CO2 emissions than conventional thermoplastics for advanced manufacturing, such as acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (a common household plastic). Adding biomass from wood or grasses increases the stiffness of 3D printing composites and reduces the amount of thermoplastics in these composites. This also reduces the weight of the composites. By 3D printing with these biomass-thermoplastics, we can make complex shapes that are difficult to create using traditional manufacturing methods like injection or compression molding, and we can achieve this sustainably.

Why does the research matter?

3D printing allows localized, remote or customized manufacturing of parts that are not available commercially. Bringing biomass-derived materials into the mix reduces our reliance on petroleum. It opens doors to using biomass wastes from the pulp and paper industry, fruit peels and other food waste, small-diameter wood pieces unsuitable for furniture construction and agricultural crop waste — all to make low-cost, greener composites that support a circular economy.

What keeps you motivated?

The process of designing and pursuing experimental studies, reaching meaningful new findings and sharing that knowledge in peer-reviewed journals to advance the state of the art is not only satisfying because of the outcomes, but by the journey it took to reach those outcomes.

What about the research that keeps you up at night?

Common thermoplastics like polyethylene, polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate have been developed by chemists to meet stringent industrial requirements like high mechanical strength, hydrophobicity and durability. However, this also makes these plastics difficult to biodegrade at the end of their lifecycle, and they are accumulating in landfills and water bodies. I think a lot about the big question of how to make new thermoplastics that have the properties of conventional thermoplastics but are also biodegradable.

What would you tell a student interested in pursuing a career in climate science or a related field?

It is important to get feedback on particular areas of climate science to understand the needs of different economic sectors and communities in order to guide the science and technology that will enable growth and sustainability. Meeting the climate challenge will take a diversity of backgrounds and expertise. By understanding the needs of various sectors and populations, young scientists can best decide where they can have an impact.