Some day, we will print our buildings. When their useful life is over, they will be recycled completely and used to print new buildings. One of the materials that will make this possible is something called Ingeo. It will be used for every part of the building, from the framework to the furnishings and decorations.
First, what exactly is Ingeo? Ingeo is the trademarked name of a kind polylactic acid (PLA) made by NatureWorks, located in Blair, Nebraska. Polylactic acid is a thermoplastic made from plants, rather than petroleum. As such it is a renewable resource. Even more interesting is the fact that PLA can be recycled completely back into its original source material, so recycled PLA is identical to virgin PLA.
When we think of plastic, we are inclined to immediately conclude that it is too flexible or too weak to be used in a building’s structure. But there is a technique that could overcome these apparent drawbacks. PLA can be used (and, in fact, is already being used) as a base material in 3-D printers. The key here is that PLA could be printed into very complex shapes. Most people understand that steel is shaped into I-beams and C-channels to provide more strength and rigidity from a given amount of material. And many people are familiar with carbon fiber materials that achieve great rigidity using shapes like tubes and honeycombs. 3-D printing will permit PLA to be made into even more complex shapes to provide the strongest and most rigid structural elements for a given amount of material. More traditional methods of working with thermoplastics, such as molding and extruding, could be used for non-load-bearing parts of the building like ceiling and wall panels.
PLA could also be used for furnishings and decorations inside of a building. Here again, 3-D printing could be used to form pieces which are limited only by the designer’s imagination. Then, in the end, everything – building and contents – could be recycled into the raw materials for another building.