Used Restaurant Cooking Oil Finds a New Lease on Life in High-Tech!

University of Toronto researchers have discovered how to transform used frying oil into a vital tech product.


Courtesy of Toronto University

There are many reasons to skip deep-fried fast food, one of which is the challenge of disposing of used cooking oil which can merge with other non-biodegradable matter into giant “fatbergs” that clog sewers. But researchers at Toronto University have put their heads together to discover an amazing method of repurposing this useless waste product into a high-end but still affordable plastic ink for 3D printers. And there’s more good news! Their ink is biodegradable, breaking down naturally, unlike conventional 3D printing resins. 

Professor Andre Simpson is Director of two cutting edge research facilities, the Environmental NMR Center and the TRACES analytical facility, also heading the Department of Chemistry at Toronto University’s Scarborough campus. He first became interested in the idea when he got a 3D printer around three years ago.  After noticing that the molecules used in commercial resins resembled fats found in cooking oils, he wondered whether one could be created using waste cooking oil.

Using old cooking oil from a local McDonald's restaurant close to campus, Professor Simpson and his research team applied a one-step chemical process in the lab, using about one liter (34 fluid ounces) of used cooking oil to make just under half of that amount in resin. The resin was then used to print a plastic butterfly that showed features down to 100 micrometers, and was structurally and thermally stable. This means that it won’t crumble or melt above room temperature.

Speaking to Goodnet this week, Professor Simpson outlined his high hopes for the innovative and cheaper route to recycling that this discovery promises: “Normally 3D printing resins are derived from fossil fuels, but by recycling used cooking oil into a high value product, we hope it will reduce the financial barriers associated with recycling,  which in combination with the resin’s biodegradability should be a win-win for the environment.”

Professor Simpson is also excited that the new lower cost of this key 3D printing ingredient will open up access to the near-limitless creative opportunities that 3D printing offers: “We hope, that as the resin can theoretically be made very cheaply (as low as $300 a ton or roughly 30c a litre), it could reduce the cost of 3D printing so the technology is available to everyone. 3D printing is not just key for prototyping and making products, but also an incredible educational tool, combining, chemistry, physics, electronics, computer design and lots of imagination!” he explains.

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