The dark side of 3D printers
THE WORLD SCIENCE AND TECHNO | 26.08.2013
It's known. All technology has its downside. And one of the latest in fashion is no exception to the rule. These are so-called "3D" printers which make it possible to manufacture three-dimensional objects by adding layer by layer of material. First reserved for industry, these machines are starting to be known to the general public, either through websites that manufacture all kinds of products on demand (figurines, toys, jewelry, spare parts, etc.) , or by hackerspaces and "fablabs" ("manufacturing laboratories"), meeting places between handymen, inventors or simple enthusiasts.
Nothing too bad a priori, except that a team from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago has just, for the first time, measured the microscopic dust emitted by these machines in the rooms where they are installed. 3D printers indeed use thermoplastics which are melted, deposited layer by layer, then resolidified; a process that emits tiny so-called "ultrafine" particles.
Specifically, the researchers, as they report in the journal Atmospheric Environment to be published in November, measured particle emissions between 11,5 and 115 nanometers in size, at flow rates between 20 and 200 billion per minute, according to the type of material used. Five printers, brand kept secret so as not to "incriminate a particular manufacturer", served for two and a half hours. A fine particle detector from the American company TSI was used in the room housing the printers.
"These figures are comparable to those of mundane activities such as cooking, consuming candles, consuming cigarettes or laser printing," summarizes Brent Stephens, the head of the study. "The size and the number of particles are not everything. The chemical nature is predominant," adds the researcher, who nevertheless cites the identified risks associated with thermoplastics, observed in rats or mice.
"The experiment is interesting because, a few years ago, measuring these emissions in professional environments was impossible. The values obtained are relatively high. Fine particles can be deposited in the respiratory tract and it is advisable to be careful", notes Olivier Witschger, specialist in aerosol metrology at the National Research and Safety Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Accidents and Occupational Diseases (INRS).
This is also the position of the American group which writes: "These results suggest caution when these technologies are used in unventilated or unfiltered environments." In support of this conclusion, Brent Stephens recalls that, recently, studies have reported fears about laser printers. An American team from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell has thus shown that certain nanoparticles used in these copiers cause inflammation (M. Khatri et al., Nanotoxicology, August).
There is no shortage of work to follow. "Initially, it was one of our students who worked in a store using these machines who alerted us because of the odors he smelled. We ultimately did not study the gases emitted but the particles", recalls Brent. Stephens. "We would now like to study the gases emitted. And compare our results with other 3D printers and other materials. We are also looking for partners in toxicology to test the effects of these particles. And we are also working on developing filtration systems. to be installed on the machines ", continues the researcher. The dark side of 3D printers is therefore also in tune with the times.
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