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Are 3D printers secure? Filtering out the myths behind filament emissions

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) made by melting ABS, PLA, nylon and PET.  Image via the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene

A study funded by SajTom Light Future Ltd., a privately held company headquartered in Poland, examined the emissions caused by the popular 3D printer filaments ABS, PLA, PET and nylon.

The research backs up extensive research showing that melting materials like ABS, PLA, PET, and nylon with adequate ventilation and a dose of common sense does no harm to 3D printer users.

But what exactly is produced by the process when plastic melts in these machines?

Time-lapse 3D printing of a 3D benchy boat. Clip about Zach Morris on YouTube

Cut out the rumors

Plastics made from fossil fuel extracts run the risk of producing harmful gases when they are melted at temperatures between 460 and 600 ° C. The maximum extrusion temperature in a typical desktop 3D printer is between 240 and 250 ° C.

At the beginning of the study, the researchers note that the operating temperature of a 3D printer is significantly lower than the pyrolysis temperature at which CO [carbon monoxide] and HCN [hydrogen cyanide] are shaped. “

All samples examined in the SajTom Light Future study are heated to 240 to 250 ° C for this purpose, and the vapors emitted from the plastics are recorded over a period of 10 minutes.

3D printers are “not a threat”

The main volatile organic compounds (VOC) of each 3D printer filament are listed in the table below.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) made by melting ABS, PLA, nylon and PET. Image via the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene

In a 3D printer with print bed dimensions of 400 × 390 × 520 mm and an air volume of around 50%, the total concentration of organic pollutants generated by ABS within one hour reaches around 280 ppm.

The resulting conclusion is that “the concentration of the organic vapors formed is not dangerously high” and therefore “does not pose a threat to the user”.

As expected, the compounds made by PLA when melted are 32% lower than the amounts made by ABS.

In addition, the acute toxicity of methyl methacrylate (MMA), the best-known VOC in PLA, is classified as “low” in an official assessment by the World Health Organization.

Leave the windows open and the filters running

SajTom Light Future was supported in this study of filament emissions by the 3D printer manufacturer 3DKreator and the University of Milan, where the Deputy Director of SajTom Light Future, Dr. Tomasz Baran, who is a postdoctoral fellow.

A Creator Motion 3D printer as used in the SajTom Light Future study.  Image via 3DKreatorA Creator Motion 3D printer as used in the SajTom Light Future study. Image via 3DKreator

The authors recommend that filters are an important component of 3D printers, which fortunately is commonplace for most desktop computers currently available.

The company is committed to bringing light absorbing photocatalytic products to market and is also committed to filters made from proprietary materials.

In contrast to typical systems, photocatalytic filters can neutralize harmful gases in the air. Such devices have been used in desktop 3D printers since 2016 and may have more diverse uses in future machines.

The next step

While by no means an exhaustive study, the authors suggest that further research can be explored by changing the variables of the experiment, i.e. filament thickness, machine setting, and space volume.

The development of greener 3D printer materials is also a focus of many projects around the world, including a European Union-funded initiative for the automotive and aerospace industries.

A full article from the study covered in this article is available online in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene. It is written jointly by Szymon Wojtyła, Piotr Klama and Tomasz Baran.

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Selected picture shows: Samples of PLA 3D printer filaments. Photo by Beau Jackson for the 3D printing industry

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