Science & Technology

UWF faculty member combines innovation and sustainability with 3D-printed materials recycling project

The University of West Florida Department of Mechanical Engineering is partnering with the UWF Haas Center Sea3D Additive Manufacturing Lab to give students hands-on experience in additive manufacturing, with an element of sustainability.

Dr. Brad Regez, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is spearheading the “3D-Printed Materials Recycling Projects” to reduce waste and decrease costs associated with printing projects produced at the UWF Sea3D Lab in downtown Pensacola.

“While additive manufacturing or 3D-printing generally has a lower consumption of raw materials over conventional methods, there is still waste generated in the form of support structures which are required for many prints,” Regez said. “These structures are removed from the final print then discarded, and the waste material adds to the cost of the print. The idea of the project is to recycle the waste material into filament that can be used for future prints.”

Originally, the recycling efforts were limited to polylactic acid, or PLA, plastic, until they decided to take it to the next level—polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, plastic, commonly used in water and soda bottles. The process for recycling PET plastic involves a multi-step procedure in preparation for an extrusion operation, which ultimately creates PET filament.

Haas Center Executive Director Nicole Gislason explained that recycling discarded waste makes good sense for the environment and reduces costs.

“On average, our team spends $20 per kilogram of filament,” Gislason said. “By recycling plastic water bottles, we may be able to reduce that cost to $5 per kilogram. We estimate that it takes 70 water bottles to produce one kilogram of filament.”

Once the filament is created, mechanical testing is performed on it to make sure the material properties are consistent and within specification. 3D-printed parts are being increasingly used for non-cosmetic applications so the material properties of the filament are very important, Regez said.

In addition to saving money by creating PET filament instead of purchasing it at a high cost, Regez said it’s valuable experience for students to take with them into the engineering field.

“Students gain experience working with additive manufacturing equipment, while also learning the importance of sustainability through recycling and reusing waste material,” Regez said. “Both of these will make students more marketable upon graduation.”

The next step for the project is collecting plastic waste on local beaches to recycle into filament for the many engineering projects ongoing at UWF.

“It is our hope that this project will ultimately save both money and some plastic waste from being introduced into the environment,” Regez said. “Even if it’s a small amount, we know that every little bit will help.”

For more information on UWF’s mechanical engineering program, visit uwf.edu/me. To learn more about the Sea3D Lab, visit uwf.edu/sea3d.