Apr. 24, 2015 | By Alec

While 3D printing technology has proven to be a revolutionary solution with wide-ranging technological applications, a number of research teams have already begun looking beyond 3D printing, to the realm of 4D printing technology. While a number of 4D printed successes have already been achieved, researchers from the University of Wollongong in Australia have now created something very remarkable: a 4D printed a valve that automatically opens and contracts when exposed to either water or to high temperatures.

4D printing, to clarify, is essentially an expansion of 3D printing technology. 4D printed objects are typically initially 3D printed using materials that respond differently and take different shapes in various situations. When exposed to certain situations – even just time, vibrations or magnetic fields – these 3D printed shapes then begin to change their shapes or functions, adding a whole new dimension to their functionality. It means that researchers can easily design and 3D print an object that autonomously transforms its shape or function. Medical and technological applications are not difficult to imagine.

It’s no wonder that Marc in het Panhuis, the scientist leading this project at the University of Wollongong’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science, likened 4D printed structures to transformers.

Marc in het Panhuis talking about the concept of 4D printing.

But the valve he and his team created – and described in their article in the journal Macromolecular Rapid Communications – is even unusual in 4D printing terms, as it is printed in four different types of hydrogel. Each of these gels add different properties to the entire structure: toughness and softness, flexibility and strength – though the composition of the mixture can be altered to do  what you want it to.

As in het Panhuis explains, this composition has enabled his team to make a fully autonomous valve. 'The cool thing about it is, is it’s a working functioning device that you just pick up from the printer,’ in het Panhuis said on his university’s website. ‘There’s no other assembly required.’ This also means it doesn’t need any power source or additional programming to operate. The actuators that make the valve function have been completely mimicked by these hydrogels. ‘So it’s an autonomous valve, there’s no input necessary other than water; it closes itself when it detects hot water,’ he explained.

Of course this is a rather basic application of what 4D printing could achieve, but in het Panhuis explains that the same principles can be applied to a whole host of medical, technological and even military needs – field that are already eagerly looking towards 3D printed solutions.

The same principles are therefore taken to more sophisticated designs, that include projects such as 3D printed pipes that change size depending on the water demands of the user, and even military objects that self-destruct when left behind on the battlefield. ‘When armies are on the battlefield they leave a lot of electronics behind. What if you could make 3D printed electronics that undergo transient behavior once they become too hot, or too cold, or too wet so they completely disappear so the enemy can't use any of your materials,’ he speculated. Could autonomously behaving 3D printed objects be the future of this technology?



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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