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Articles from 2016 In January

Plastic egg packaging boils down to precision

Mastering the art of boiling an egg is no easy feat. If you wait too long after taking off heat, they end up with green-gray yolks and shells that are a nuisance to peel off. The New Egg Co., based in Nottingham, has come to the aid of home cooks by developing a foolproof way to get that perfect runny yolk...every time. Consumers can now enjoy the convenience of a perfect soft-boiled egg in just five minutes thanks to Yowk, a bespoke-designed pack that includes a pre-boiled egg, bread sticks, a spoon and seasoning. All that is required is boiling water.

The New Egg Co. worked with RPC Design and RPC Bebo UK to design the ideal pack format. RPC Design came up with a two piece pack thermoformed in polypropylene, making up a round pot and snap-on lid. The base of the pack incorporates a hollowed out section for the egg to sit in, while the ‘egg cup’ shape of the underside of the lid fits over the egg in the pack, ensuring it remains stable during transit.

All consumers need to do is simply remove the lid and contents, leaving the egg, and fill the container with boiling water. After five minutes, the egg is ready for consumption. The lid doubles as an egg cup, while the spoon has a small sharp ‘tooth’ to do away with the top of the egg.

According to The New Egg Co., a lot of attention went into the overall size of the pack to make certain the precise volume of boiling water is added each time. This was critical as too little water would not heat the egg enough while too much would carry on the process and solidify the yolk.

The end result was a challenge to form so RPC Design worked closely with the technical team at RPC Bebo UK to achieve a format that does not distort or deform when the water is added and which can be comfortably picked up and handled.

“Eggs are a nutritious snack, ideal for people on the go,” explains Ian Hetherington, The New Egg Co.’s Managing Director. “Yowk allows consumers to enjoy the perfect boiled egg, anytime and anywhere, and RPC has made a huge contribution in helping us to bring this innovation to market.”

This is not a plastic bag

Belgian artist René Magritte's famous painting, Ceci n'est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe, as it is popularly known, although the actual title of the painting is The Treachery of Images), made an artistic statement about representation and reality. The Card Factory, a UK greeting card retailer, has a more legalistic perspective in mind, when it claims that the pictured plastic bag is, in fact, not one because it lacks handles and is therefore not subject to the 5 pence bag tax.

Image courtesy @Apriltheband/Twitter.
A plastic bag fee was instituted in England in October 2015, bringing it in line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where stores had been charging consumers for single-use bags. However, the law defines the single-use bag as a thin-gauge product with handles. So, a clever Trevor over at the Card Factory figured that the company could offer its bags for free simply by lopping off the handles.

A spokesperson for the Card Factory told trade journal PRW that "the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has confirmed that not charging for bags without handles complies with the regulations as they stand."

The Guardian reports that Tesco has reported a 78% fall in the use of plastic bags at its stores since the tax went into effect. In Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, the use of plastic bags has decined by more than 90% since the levies were implemented. There have also been reports of thousands of bags being stolen by shoppers, adds the Guardian.

You have to wonder if our own homegrown legal eagles have looked closely at the bag bans in effect across the United States. Without getting into the ethics of it all, finding a loophole is certain to get you loads of free publicity. Just ask the Card Factory.

Performing medical diagnostics is no sweat for this wearable device

The medical wearables market is in robust health, according to multiple industry analysts, with Research and Markets (Dublin) forecasting more than 20% annual growth in the next five years to reach approximately $14 billion by 2020. That may even be a conservative estimate, if researchers continue to find novel ways to extract meaningful health information from wearable devices. That's what Ali Javey, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, and his team have achieved with a head- or wristband that monitors the chemical make up of sweat to non-invasively assess medical conditions.

Image courtesy Wei Gao/UC Berkeley.
The wearable sensor measures metabolytes and electrolytes present in human sweat to determine a range of health issues, including fatigue, dehydration and body temperature. It is reportedly the first fully integrated electronic system that can provide continuous, non-invasive monitoring of multiple biochemicals in sweat. The research is described in the Jan. 28, 2016, issue of Nature.

"Human sweat contains physiologically rich information, thus making it an attractive body fluid for non-invasive wearable sensors," said Javey in a news release published on the UC Berkeley website. "However, sweat is complex and it is necessary to measure multiple targets to extract meaningful information about your state of health. In this regard, we have developed a fully integrated system that simultaneously and selectively measures multiple sweat analytes, and wirelessly transmits the processed data to a smartphone. Our work presents a technology platform for sweat-based health monitors," said Javey.

The prototype developed by Javey and his research team packs five sensors onto a flexible, 100-μm-thick polyester film. The sensors measure the concentrations of sodium and potassium ions as well as glucose and lactate, reports Science. A flexible circuit board with 11 off-the-shelf computer chips interprets the data coming from the sensors, which is transmitted wirelessly to a laptop or cell phone.

"The integrated system allows us to use the measured skin temperature to calibrate and adjust the readings of other sensors in real time," said study co-lead author Wei Gao. "This is important because the response of glucose and lactate sensors can be greatly influenced by temperature."

Researchers put the prototype to the test, as dozens of volunteers cycled on stationary bikes or ran outdoors on tracks and trails from a few minutes to more than an hour. The device functioned as intended. "Besides being portable and noninvasive (no needles required!), the prototype monitors chemicals in real time, eliminating the time and effort usually needed to collect samples and transport them for analysis to a lab with large, expensive equipment," writes Science.

The flexibility of this technology extends well beyond the physical device, and it could be used to measure a host of other body fluids, according to the UC Berkeley news release. "While Professor Javey's wearable, non-invasive technology works well on sweating athletes, there are likely to be many other applications of the technology for measuring vital metabolite and electrolyte levels of healthy persons in daily life," said George Brooks, a UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology, who contributed to the research. "It can also be adapted to monitor other body fluids for those suffering from illness and injury."

BASF Group feeling the bite of lower oil and gas prices

The preliminary, non-audited figures for 2015 released by BASF (Ludwigshafen, Germany) earlier this week revealed impairments in EBIT due to lower oil and gas price forecasts. Revenue fell 5%, dropping from €74.3 billion in 2014 to €70.4 billion, while earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) and before special items was expected to be €6.7 billion for the full year 2015, considerably less than the €7.4 billion achieved in 2014.

The decrease in sales, said the firm, resulted primarily from the divestiture of the natural gas trading and storage activities. However, the decline in EBIT before special items was due in particular to significantly lower earnings in the Oil & Gas and Chemicals segments in the fourth quarter of 2015 compared with the same period of 2014. In the Chemicals segment, this was mainly due to lower margins in the Petrochemicals division.

BASF said that it had previously expected only slightly lower EBIT in the full year 2015. However, the Oil & Gas segment—BASF is the owner of Germany’s largest oil and gas exploration firm, Wintershall—is wrestling with the impact of the strong decline in oil and gas prices over the past months. Wintershall accounted for 22% of BASF’s operating profit, or €1.7 billion, in 2014.

The company anticipates that prices for oil and gas will remain at a low level in 2016, and has reduced assumptions for oil and gas prices for subsequent years, causing an impairment of around €600 million in the Oil & Gas segment.

On February 26, 2016, BASF will publish its Consolidated Financial Statements for 2015 and will comment on the figures at its Annual Press Conference.

Covestro expands PC film production capacity in Dormagen

Covestro (Leverkusen, Germany), the former Bayer MaterialScience, is investing roughly EUR 20 million to expand its production capacity for polycarbonate films at the Dormagen site. The company has announced plans to construct a new co-extrusion plant for high-quality, multilayer flat films that is projected to come on stream in 2017. The expansion will lead to the creation of 15 new jobs at the Dormagen site.

“With this investment we are significantly expanding our films business,” said Daniel Meyer, head of the Coatings, Adhesives and Specialties Segment. “At the same time, we are expanding our range of tailored products, which offer added value along the entire value chain.”

Covestro offers a diverse range of polycarbonate and thermoplastic elastomer films for a wide variety of applications, as well as a range of high-quality specialty films. Development activities in Europe are managed by three competence centers, all located in Germany.

The center in Dormagen is specialized in polycarbonate flat films and offers production facilities, a technical center for film processing, a showroom and two research laboratories, which have been totally re-equipped. The other two competence centers located in Leverkusen and Bomlitz are dedicated to film coating and thermoplastic elastomer films, respectively.

The films manufactured in Dormagen are used in security cards, automotive interiors, medical devices and displays.

“With the new plant, we are orienting ourselves more than ever on market trends and the rising demand for high-quality flat films. For us it is a further developmental step for multilayer film structures, such as those used for counterfeit-proof identity cards,” declared Nina Schmarander, global head of Specialty Films at Covestro.

Amcor continues to dole out dollars with latest acquisition

Packaging behemoth Amcor (Melbourne, Australia) is at it again with its latest $13 million acquisition of BPI China, the Chinese subsidiary of UK-based British Polythene Industries PLC. Earlier this month, PlasticsToday reported on the company’s acquisition of Deluxe Packages (Yuba City, CA), a privately owned flexible packaging business for $45 million.

BPI China is located in Xinhui, South China, with state-of-the-art blown film and flexographic printing lines. The business produces flexible packaging products for export and domestic customers.

Amcor currently has 10 flexible packaging facilities in China, including four plants in Southern China. The acquisition is a strategic move so Amcor can strengthen its leadership ties in Southern China and enhance the existing business by providing additional scale and talent. It will also broaden Amcor's capabilities in China to include flexographic printing and reduce future capital expenditure requirements.

Amcor's Managing Director and CEO, Ron Delia said, "China continues to be an attractive market for flexible packaging globally and this is an excellent opportunity to support our continued expansion in the important Southern region."  

Amcor is a global provider of global packaging solutions supplying a broad range of rigid & flexible packaging products into the food, beverage, healthcare, home and personal care and tobacco packaging industries. The company, which has an annual sales of $10 billion, employs more than 29,000 in over 120 sites in 43 countries.

Company makes case that fiber-reinforced plastic composites improve worker safety

Composite materials offer tremendous benefits in a range of applications because their light weight and durability can significantly improve product performance. They can also play a role in reducing workplace injuries, according to Fibrelite (Smithfield, NC), a manufacturer of fiber reinforced plastic (FRP) composite access covers. The company designed the first composite manhole cover for gas stations, which has since become the industry standard, more than 30 years ago.

FibreliteReports of crushed and amputated fingers and toes along with burns, back injuries and other dangers have given industries ranging from data centers to water treatment plants a reason to seek safer alternatives, writes Fibrelite. According to the 2014/2015 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3,675 injuries were reported in the manufacturing industry alone, 32% of which were back injuries, resulting in a total of 125,880 missed working days. This has caused major problems for decision makers, as legislation continues to restrict acceptable manual weights. Composites are an ideal solution to these problems, writes Fibrelite. "By using lighter materials such as composites, operational injuries are prevented, work sites are made safer and ease of installation and maintenance is made available to utility workers and contractors," says the company.

A case in point are manhole and trench covers, where the risk of injury during installation and removal are traditionally extremely high. Conventional covers typically weigh more than three times a composite cover, making them too heavy to be lifted manually. They require the use of large machinery, compounding the safety risks already in place. These steel covers also lack temperature control, which can make the surface extremely hot. This presents a hazard in public spaces, such as university campuses, shopping centers and municipalities, where heavy foot traffic is commonplace, notes Fibrelite. The company cites a study published by the League of Minnesota Cities, "Muscling Manhole Covers and Other Ergonomic Information," which stated that workers are frequently injured while attempting to remove heavy cast-iron manhole covers. The average cost of these injuries is reported as $100,000 per incident.
Using composite materials eliminates the use of heavy lifting equipment and allows for safer manual handling. Fibrelite's FRP covers have been designed to eliminate risk of burns by not exceeding high temperatures on the surface, regardless of the temperatures below the cover. They also have an anti-slip/skid surface to protect pedestrians. And because they typically are one-third of the weight of metal or concrete covers and are designed with two ergonomic lifting handles, they can be manipulated quickly and easily by two workers without risk of back injury or crushed fingers or toes, says the company.
Cost is often raised as a factor in the adoption of FRP composites, but Fibrelite argues that their corrosion resistance, safety, thermal conductivity and other performance features should be considered when doing a cost analysis. Other industries are following Fibrelite's lead, according to the company, and are incorporating composites into their products as they react to changing regulations, strict health and safety policies and product maintenance costs.

Materials scientist engineers metal-replacement technology to save elephant tusks

We often write about advances in metal replacement, but this is the first time I have come across an example where the technology is helping to save elephant tusks.

Back in November 2015, Dr. Brian Pillay, director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Materials Processing and Applications Development Center, was approached by Birmingham Zoo veterinarians, who were concerned about a crack growing in the tusk of their oldest elephant, Bulwagi.

elephant tusk repair
Image courtesy Katherine Shonesy/UAB.
A cracked tusk can become infected and pose problems for an elephant, writes Katherine Shonesy on the UAB news site. Tusks with cracks that are left untreated ultimately may have to be removed. "An open crack is a site for infection, as a tusk is basically a tooth," Pillay told Shonesy. "Imagine having a crack in your tooth—it's rather painful for the elephants, as well."

The conventional treatment for cracked tusks involves the use of a metal ring to prevent the crack from spreading. "It's got to be a very heavy solution, not to mention it would be pretty ugly," Pillay told Motherboard, a Vice channel, reporting on the project. There ought to be a better way, thought Pillay, who figured that the research he has done in developing materials that are lighter, stronger and tougher than steel, typically used in airplanes and bridges, could be applied in a biological setting.

The zoo's team of veterinarians, animal care specialists and curators worked with students and researchers from UAB to prepare, then apply, a composite fiberglass and carbon-fiber band and resin on Bulwagi's tusk, explains Shonesy. "We worked with Dr. Pillay's lab to practice applying this product on a PVC pipe to start off with as a model," said Richard Sim, associate veterinarian at the zoo. Ultimately, they applied layers of carbon fiber and fiberglass around the tusk, and then used a vacuum pump to suck an epoxy-like resin into the structure. "It set and became a really hard structure that is going to resist the forces that resulted in the crack," Sim said. "No one has done this before, so it's our hope that this will be a process that will stand the test of time."

elephant tusk repair
Image courtesy Katherine Shonesy/UAB.
Although the tusk repair material is working as intended, the intervention may have come too late for Bulwagi. Speaking with Motherboard, Sim said that the tusk ultimately became infected following the procedure and that the elephant is being monitored in case further action is needed.

The innovation has attracted the attention of other zoos, however, which have requested more information. Pillay said that he is considering writing a manual for veterinarians that would allow them to perform this procedure.

"We were able to come up with a new idea that helps the elephant," Sim told Motherboard. "That made for the cool intersection between the industrial engineering part of this and biological husbandry. It's been fun to work on."

Add-on module delivers composite-forming capability to standard 3D printer

Add-on module delivers composite-forming capability to standard 3D printer

Ultrasonic waves are employed to create a microscopic reinforcement framework of glass fibers while laser irradiation is used to cure the epoxy resin matrix in the modified 3D printer.

An existing open source 3D printer (the Prusa i3) was used to demonstrate the capability. In the modified printer, ultrasonic waves are used to carefully position millions of tiny reinforcement fibers as part of the 3D printing process. The fibers are formed into a microscopic reinforcement framework that gives the material strength. This microstructure is then set in place using a focused laser beam, which locally cures the epoxy resin and then prints the object. To achieve this the research team mounted a switchable, focused laser module on the carriage of a standard three-axis 3D printing stage, above the new ultrasonic alignment apparatus.

Tom Llewellyn-Jones, a PhD student in advanced composites who developed the system, said: "We have demonstrated that our ultrasonic system can be added cheaply to an off-the-shelf 3D printer, which then turns it into a composite printer."

In the study, a print speed of 20 mm/s was achieved, which is similar to conventional additive layer techniques. The researchers have now shown the ability to assemble a plane of fibers into a reinforcement framework. The precise orientation of the fibers can be controlled by switching the ultrasonic standing wave pattern mid-print.

This approach allows the realization of complex fibrous architectures within a 3D printed object. The versatile nature of the ultrasonic manipulation technique also enables a wide-range of particle materials, shapes and sizes to be assembled, leading to the creation of a new generation of fibrous reinforced composites that can be 3D printed.

Bruce Drinkwater, Professor of Ultrasonics in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, said: "Our work has shown the first example of 3D printing with real-time control over the distribution of an internal microstructure and it demonstrates the potential to produce rapid prototypes with complex microstructural arrangements. This orientation control gives us the ability to produce printed parts with tailored material properties, all without compromising the printing."

Dr. Richard Trask, Reader in Multifunctional Materials in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, added: "As well as offering reinforcement and improved strength, our method will be useful for a range of smart materials applications, such as printing resin-filled capsules for self-healing materials or piezoelectric particles for energy harvesting.

3D-printed building and car work together to get you off the grid

Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Oak-Ridge-National-Laboratory-AMIEAn ORNL team worked with several industrial partners, including Techmer PM, Techmer ES and Johnson Controls, to manufacture and connect a natural-gas-powered hybrid electric vehicle with a solar-powered building to create an integrated energy system. Power can flow in either direction between the vehicle and building through a lab-developed wireless technology. The approach allows the car to provide supplemental power to the 210-square-foot house when the sun is not shining.

Fabrication of the building and vehicle was made possible by ORNL's BAAM 3D printer, a behemoth that can print objects measuring 20 x 12 x 6 feet.

The pavilion, designed by architecture firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM; Chicago), is composed of 3D-printed panels that serve as exterior cladding while providing structural support, insulation and moisture protection.

This all-in-one approach cuts down on construction waste and reduces material usage, SOM told de zeen magazine. "SOM and its partners optimized the structure's form to reduce the amount of material used and to express three-dimensional printing's ability to deploy complex, organic geometries," said the firm.

oak-ridge-national-lab-amieSolar panels on the roof feed the battery under the building. The solar panels work in tandem with a natural-gas-powered generator in the 3D-printed car to supply energy for lighting. AMIE demonstrates the use of bidirectional wireless energy and high-tech materials to live off the grid at peak demand times, according to ORNL.

"Working together, we designed a building that innovates construction and building practices and a vehicle with a long enough range to serve as a primary power source," said ORNL's Roderick Jackson, who led the AMIE demonstration project. "Our integrated system allows you to get multiple uses out of your vehicle."

ORNL researchers hope their integrated approach to energy generation, storage and consumption will introduce solutions for the modern electric grid, which faces challenges ranging from extreme weather events to how best to incorporate growing renewable energy use, particularly as the transportation sector transitions away from fossil fuels.

Is anyone surprised that 3D printing and polymers are playing a key role in creating these vitally important solutions?