Dec 13, 2014 | By Alec

3D printing technology comes in various shapes and sizes and printing techniques. And while we might sometimes complain about the limited possibilities of the printing surfaces of our FDM printers, some industrial designers and scientists are instead looking for microscopic level printing, which has a large number of potential industrial, chemical and medical applications.

Fortunately for them, a team of South Korean scientists, led by Seongpil Hwang of the Korea University in Seoul, has now developed a very intriguing and promising 3D printer: the HYPER pen. The HYPER, which stands for "hydrogel pen for electrochemical reaction", combines the precision of atomic force microscopy with a type of diffusion 3D printing relying on microscopic electrodes.

Contact between the pen's tip and a working electrode creates a localised electroactive area for precise electrodeposition

This pen-like structure is a very complicated electrochemical tool that can, at a very small level, deposit platinum on electrode surfaces though the concept of electrodeposition: 'a low-cost, reliable, environmentally friendly, and versatile method to fabricate thin films, the thickness of which is controlled between a monolayer and several micrometers.'

This is usually used to produce 2D structures, but this pen has moved into 3D. Those science geeks among you, be sure to check out their Seongpil Hwang's recent paper published in the Nanoscale Journal. For you laymen, the HYPER pen is unlike the pens we use in everyday life. In fact, completely ignore the concept of the pen, as it isn't something you can hold in your hand and this whole innovation revolves around its tip.

The new 3D printing pen employs is a combination of three techniques: dip-pen lithography developed by Chad Mikin of Northwestern University (USA), nanopipettes built by Patrick Unwin at the University of Warwick (UK), and micro-nozzels developed by Jennifer Lewis from Harvard University (USA).

Platinum structures produced by different approaches to using the pen

Like any pen, the HYPER has a pyramid-shaped tip, but then on a microscopic level and made from hydrogel. It's point is soaked in an electrolyte that enables electrochemical reactions to take place. When this tip is brought into contact with electrode surfaces (like gold electrode), mass can be transported from this tip to that surface thanks to 'a faradaic current that depends on the small electroactive area'. This can then be used to create precise nanostructures (provided the tip is controlled with a nanopositioning system).

These 3D structures can be absolutely minute; according to the paper, the HYPER pen is able to 'fabricate small sizes (110 nm in diameter), tall heights (up to 30 μm), and arbitrary structures, thereby indicating an additive process in 3 dimensions by localized electrodeposition.'

As professor Hwang told reporters, this is 'the first example of a 3D printing pen', though they did greatly benefit from other research teams. While their pen is everything but ready for practical applications, its developers are hopeful that the HYPER pen is the crucial step into that direction. Further studies are hoping to improve scale, control and reliability of these type of nanoprinters.

While more research is thus definitely required, Hwang's team are confident that electrodeposition printing technology can be used to 3D print any metallic structure on a microscopic level, and at a commercially interesting price as well. 'We believe that further investigation of our HYPER will provide a new path to affordable 3D nanoprinting.'

Posted in 3D Printers


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