Print Foam: Engineering energy efficiency

By Anna Lardinois, Startup Storyteller

Engineer Matthew Pearlson was working as a research specialist in the Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment at MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics to develop more efficient sources of energy when he had an epiphany.

“I was working on making more jet fuel,” he said. “I realized, even if we’re wildly successful and we produce all the jet fuel that you can produce, it really doesn’t matter. It’s not enough to replace what we already use, because we use so much.”

He added, “I was working on producing more energy, which is good; however, I wanted to find ways to use less.”

With that goal in mind, Pearlson began experimenting in his spare time with resins to create a lightweight alternative to the conventional heavy materials often used to make vehicles, like airplanes and cars.

“The best way to make something more efficient is to make it lighter. Lighter weight always means more efficient and better performance,” he said.

Lightweight vehicles challenge conventional thoughts of passenger safety. Pearlson suggests that safety is a function of engineering, rather than materials.

“The safety certifications test the end results, right? If you’re testing a bicycle helmet, then that bicycle helmet is either going to pass the safety test or not pass the test,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what it’s made of, it doesn’t matter who made it, how fancy it is or how much it weighs.”

Providing an example of the power of engineering, Pearlson said, “There are ways to engineer structures that are very lightweight and make them incredibly safe. One need only look at the last F1 race in Great Britain over the weekend where a driver flipped upside down in the first corner and skidded 200 yards off the track and did a backflip. People don’t always walk away from accidents like that, but I think you can see when you put good minds and great engineering and materials to work, you can do incredible things.”

Pearlson also explains that advances in technology, like assistive braking and lane departure warnings, mean that engineers no longer are forced to rely on steel and other heavy materials to keep passengers safe.

The demand for lightweight materials has already begun.

The advent of electrical vehicles requires widespread use of lightweight construction materials.

“Every car company in the world has said they’re going fully electric. And the only way they can go fully electric is if they make them lightweight, because then you’ll need less batteries. And then you bring down the price and can go further. That’s the biggest complaint about electric vehicles — the range. The vehicles have to get lighter,” he said.

For Pearlson, the answer is the resin-like foam he has developed in his laboratory. To make this happen, he needs to change the way we think of foam.

“Historically when people think about foam, they think about expanded polystyrene, the white stuff that a new TV gets packed into at the factory,” he said. “Or they think about the pink hard board that’s used in construction. Those are extruded pieces of plastic that come from commodity chemicals that cost pennies per pound,

“But those things aren’t particularly structural. They don’t have a lot of strength. They’re used more for insulation. If you want to use that product, you typically also have to have a frame, and then you also have to have a skin. So, you’re talking about at least three things, sometimes four or more when you consider the fasteners and adhesives.

“When you print something, you can print something that has not just structure, but its function is of programmed into it, and so you could print something that is both insulation, structure, and skin in one piece.

“We’re not trying to replace the pink board that’s used in construction. What we’re trying to do is print foam for applications where you can get a lot more out of a given structure.”

This innovative building material realized its potential when Pearlson created a 3D printer that met the needs of the foam. As a result, the company has two patent families, one for the material, and another for the hardware. He initially tried to retrofit existing printers but found them too slow to match his vision.

“If you take an existing system, and you make it two times faster, or four times faster, it’s not enough to move the needle. Traditional systems are so slow; it sometimes takes days to make something big. They (traditional 3D printers) don’t scale properly. They don’t scale well to large areas,” he said.

Pearlson states that printed foam pieces will change the way products are manufactured. The printed foam is “something that could be used not as just an insulative product, but something that could replace an assembly of products,” he said. “And that’s the ‘complexity for free’ piece of additive manufacturing. One of the value propositions is you don’t have to think of it as a bunch of parts that you put together. You can think of it as one part because you can make it in a way that has never existed before you. You’re not constrained to how a drill bit moves in and out, or how an injection molding tool comes together.”

While Pearlson got his start in the aerospace and energy fields, he sees a broad market for print foam that includes the diverse fields of medicine, construction, and renewable energy, among others.

Print Foam is ready to move from the lab into the field.

“We’re working with some early adopting customers for the commercialization plan. We’re putting together designs and prototype parts for their internal R&D programs,” Pearlson said. “We’re open for business and would love to hear from other companies in the area who want to share details about their application.”

The company is working with the Commercialization Technology Center (CTC) to move into the market and in June Print Foam was awarded a $75,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I grant.

The pandemic brought Print Foam to Wisconsin. Pearlson and his family moved to the state to be near his in-laws, but the company plans to remain in its Wales location.

“I had my stuff shipped over from Boston and started hiring smart engineers from the local colleges. The rest is history,” he said.

“We think that there’s great stuff going on in the Midwest and there’s no better place to have a manufacturing startup than right here.”

To learn more about Print Foam, connect with them here.  

Matthew Pearlson, founder of Print Foam, headquartered in Wales, WI

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