Printing a sustainable future?


Printers have been a base of frustration for some for many years but there is no chance of running low of paper or ink with the revolutionised 3D printer. Printing an array of useful and sometimes bizarre objects over the past few decades, it is the idea of printing 3D renewable energy which has got everyone talking…

3D printing has fast become one of those technological advancements gripping scientists and technology enthusiasts all over the world. As with so many progressions, development is happening terribly fast and at an exponential and exciting rate. On first hearing that you are now able to 3D print an object whether it be a cup, tool or other inanimate object, the first question is surely, ‘how?’




In basic terms, taken from a digital design, or virtual blueprint, information is inputted into the printer which then creates the object by layering through additive manufacturing or by using alternative materials including glass and plastic to create a 3D object.


With a 3D gun printed in Texas to advancing organ fabrication research, producing human limbs and even organs, to a 3D printed bust of Barack Obama; what is next for this technological phenomenon?




Its ability to revolutionise renewable energy by printing solar panels is certainly a good place to start. Despite growing popularity, solar panels remain costly to both manufacture and install, can be ineffective in countries where there is little sunshine and cause problems due to a lack of energy storage. A 3D printed solar panel, however, could pose a much more sustainable idea.


This ingenious idea certainly has an array of benefits: production costs could be reduced by as much as 50% for printed solar panels and with a more viable ‘on-demand’ model, fewer materials would be wasted. 3D printing also has the advantage of being transportable so where distribution of existing solar panels is expensive, 3D printed panels have the ability to be produced just about anywhere.


Testament to this is graduate, Markus Kayser, who took his 3D printer all the way to the vast Egyptian desert. Setting up camp, Kayser used the sun to activate his 3D printer to create beautiful glass bowls from the sand around him. Named the ‘Solar Sinter’ and using the most plentiful renewable energy source, the sun’s rays are absorbed by a photovoltaic (PV) panel. A PV solar panel has a non-reflective layer of film laying on top of a semiconductor, solar radiation is converted into direct current electricity via a contact terminal which allows an electric current to flow through it. Using this energy to power his 3D printer, the sand is then melted down to be moulded and printed into the desired shape simply using the abundance of natural energy in the dessert.




Energy companies across the world are helping to save and improve millions of lives through utilising the benefits of 3D printing in which to test innovative ideas and concepts. Peppermint Energy, based in South Dakota, USA, developed ‘Forty2’, a portable energy array by using the FDM 3D printing technology from 3D printer manufacturers, Stratasys. This technology allowed the team to produce complex models for design proof. Forty2 uses the natural energy of the sun to power appliances for storing food, medicines and laptops in developing countries. A battery stores energy from the day so electricity can still be generated when the sun goes down; a development which is changing so many lives for the better.


Designs for Hope is also utilising the benefits of a 3D printer for an innovative and life changing project, helping to create a cheaper and easier manufacturing process. Bicycles are used regularly in developing countries for long and arduous trips so Designs for Hope decided to use the rotational energy to create essentially ‘free energy’ for the cyclists. Developing initial prototypes using 3D printers, the team has now created a device to hold a generator that when placed on the back of a bicycle, harvests the energy it produces. The electricity is then stored in a battery which can be used to power mobile phones and lights, helping to create a better livelihood for those living in such rural areas.



3D printing solar panels however, seems to be where the excitement is really mounting. A team of scientists at Australia’s Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium (VICOSC) have come up with a way of printing solar panels onto a flexible plastic film. Despite only generating 50 watts at present while existing solar panels can produce up to 200 watts, it is more the innovative and revolutionary thought of what this could mean for renewable energy and although these 3D printed solar panels are not yet in production, the potential is enormous.


3D printed solar panels will not only be more cost effective, but their versatility and weightlessness present endless sustainable possibilities, highlighted by many entrepreneurs. A few ideas tossed around the 3D energy field include attaching these paper thin solar panels to cars, laptops and even onto skyscrapers. It is only when the enormity of what printed solar panels could mean to technology and sustainability, that even the most sceptical of energy renewable analysts must sit up and take note. Of course, as with so many revolutionary technological advancements, problems arise and sceptics will voice opinions but renewable energy is the future and if a machine can make this process more economical and easier, it looks to be a very sustainable future after all.


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