Solar-powered 3D printers trialled in Solomon Islands

Thursday, 08 March, 2018 | Supplied by: Deakin University

3d printing 4

Deakin University, in partnership with Plan International Australia, has successfully trialled technology capable of 3D printing plumbing and sanitation supplies using discarded plastics.

The university ran a crowdfunding campaign back in 2017 to help meet the costs of the printers’ first prototypes. Plan International Australia contributed $10,000 to the project, along with a donation from a private donor and additional financial support from Deakin’s Centre for Humanitarian Leadership and School of Engineering.

Now, less than 12 months after completing funding, the research team has trialled the printers in the field in the Solomon Islands, where they were powered by solar energy — despite a week of cyclonic conditions and rain. The team also scavenged discarded hard and soft plastics, including keyboards, jerry cans and printer cartridges, to convert into plastic filament that was fed into the printer.

“Finding effective means of recycling is vital everywhere, but particularly in places like Honiara, where plastic waste is increasing and its management remains minimal,” said Plan International Australia’s manager for water, sanitation and hygiene, Tom Rankin.

“In the streets of Honiara, there is plastic literally everywhere. It clogs up the drains, causing flooding, and flows out into the sea, killing marine life. Our aim was to turn waste plastic into useful parts and we’ve achieved that.”

The 3D printer used to print water supply parts using recycled filament and solar power.

Working with volunteers from local villages to identify leaks in rural water supply systems, the project team measured the pipes, designed a replacement part and 3D printed the part in hard plastics. The team also used soft plastics to 3D print seals for leaking taps.

“In the parts of the Solomon Islands we visited there is a significant need for customised sanitation parts,” said Dr Mazher Mohammed, a senior research fellow in Deakin’s School of Engineering. “We saw mismatched pipe everywhere, bandaged up with car inner tubes, bamboo and cloth. Some taps were leaking the equivalent of a bucket of water every few minutes.

“While in the Solomon Islands we also found we could use the reclaimed plastics for other applications, from jewellery making, basket weaving and even cutting grass. We believe we’ve only scratched the surface of the potential application for this equipment, helping turn trash into treasure.”

A component of a water supply fitting printed using 100% recycled plastics (in this case, old computer keyboards and printer cartridges).

Rankin described the trial as a “huge advancement” which saw the researchers prove that recycled plastics can be used to print useful parts.

“The next step is to get the technology working reliably and to consider what else we could use it for,” he said, suggesting the potential applications of the technology are “limitless”.

“It was amazing … to test our equipment in the middle of the jungle in cyclonic conditions,” added Dr Mohammed. “If we can make it work here, I truly believe we can make it work anywhere.”

Top image caption: One end of a pipe connector printed using the 3D printer during installation.

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