Dec.9, 2013

Students may soon be able to reach out and touch some of the theoretical concepts they explore in physics classes, using 3D printing.

Top view of the output produced from the Sculplexity project. Researchers have successfully demonstrated how complex theoretical physics can be transformed into a physical object using a 3D printer. Credit: Imperial College London/EPL

Researchers from Imperial College London have demonstrated how complex theoretical physics can be transformed into a physical object using a 3D printer. Based on a mathematical model that described how forest fires can be started and how they eventually spread over time, they created a 8 cm3 object in just eight hours and at the cost of around 12 pounds.

Researchers have named the approach "Sculplexity", standing for sculptures of complexity. The inspiration came from Dr Tim Evans's visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where he came across the first ever 3D printed object the museum had acquired.

The Fractal.MGX table designed by WertelOberfell and Mathias Bär, photo credit Stephane Briolant (Image rights WertelOberfell).

"The object was a table inspired by the tree-like structures found in nature, which is an example of a branching process that is commonly encountered in complex systems in theoretical physics. This led me to thinking, what other processes familiar to physics could be turned into a 3D printed object? How would you actually do this conversion? Does the tool, the 3D printer, impose its own limitations on the type of mathematical model we can use?" said Dr Evans.

Complex systems, for example a living organism, are made up of many parts that interact on many time and length scales and which show coherent behaviour and certain patterns on a large scale. Until now researchers had only seen these mathematical models visualised using two-dimensional representations, often not even using perspective to give the impression of a 3D object. Making a 3D printed object opens up uncharted territory.

In their study, the researchers used a forest fire as an example, in which each part represented a tree which could either be alive, dead or burning. Each part can exist in a certain state and evolve over time, a process governed by a certain set of rules.

"The basic idea is simple. A 3D printer builds up its object in layers. So the height of the object can be thought of as time. Suppose you have a mathematical model which defines a flat, two-dimensional picture that evolves in time – typically this will be a grid with some squares full and some empty.

"The mathematical model will define at each point in time what the printer should print at one height. The next step in the model will then define what to print on top of the first layer, and so forth. The result is a 3D object which shows how the mathematical model has evolved over time," continued Dr Evans.

The resulting model that the researchers created was not without glitches. However, Dr Evans believes the experience has allowed them to identify the obstacles, formulate solutions and inspire the physics community to "get creative".

"In our own group at Imperial we are trying to explain heart beat anomalies by looking at simple models for the behaviour of individual cells in heart muscle – it's possible that this could be visualised using 3D printing. Most models that represent the spread of disease could also be visualised.

"There may be many other possible examples and we just hope our rather literal translation from theoretical model to 3D printer output stimulates others to get creative," Dr Evans concluded.

Their work is published today in the journal European Physics Letters.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Applications

 

 

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