Feb 11, 2016 | By Benedict
Paul Chiarot, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Binghamton, New York, has received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop his electrospray 3D printing method.
Even in a burgeoning field like 3D printing, half-a-million dollars is a lot of money to be throwing around. That’s why Chiarot’s electrospray technique could well be something to get excited about. The mechanical engineer has been awarded that princely sum by the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious program for early-career researchers, and his grand ambitions appear to match the foundation’s outlay.
The “electrospray” technique works a bit like an inkjet printer, only in 3D. Tiny particles in a solvent are sprayed onto a surface, with a high electric charge keeping the particles separated. This allows for the highest level of detail and extremely precise control over the 3D printed component’s properties, currently unmatched by any comparable 3D printing method.
“What we’re trying to do is to control, at the smallest length scales, what the structure of an individual layer looks like,” Chiarot explained. “Right now, there’s not a lot of control for that. But if you want to be able to get really nice functionality out of a 3D printed part, you want to be able to control what we call structure at the smallest possible length scales.”
The level of control afforded by the electrospray technique will allow engineers to manipulate a 3D printed part in completely new ways. The precise manipulation of particles will, for example, bring the mechanical, electrical, thermal and optical properties of a 3D printed part under the jurisdiction of the part designer. Thin layers of gold could be used in solar cell development because of their transparency and conductivity, glass particles could be used for anti-fogging or anti-frosting coatings, and magnetic particles could be manipulated for data storage.
“If you imagine these particles were billiard balls that we just threw together—which is the way we do it now — and you wanted to pass electric current through that, if it’s randomly packed, it won’t do a great job of it,” Chiarot says. “But if we do it the way you line up billiard balls—in an orderly fashion—that should help us get better conductivity, a more efficient device or maybe one that requires less material.”
An electrospray 3D printer differs from those we’re used to seeing in several important ways. The printer uses a high-voltage power supply and a pump to extrude the material to a syringe-like nozzle. The particles are sprayed out of this nozzle and, because of the electric charge, can be dispersed in the most precise manner. Secondary fields can even be used to reposition each particle during the split second between leaving the nozzle and hitting the target layer.
One of the National Science Foundation’s motivations for awarding Chiarot the $500,000 grant may have been more political than scientific, with the engineer admitting the instrumental motivations behind his research: “We want to understand this principle fundamentally,” Chiarot says, “and then, using that knowledge, we want to develop a manufacturing technique that can lead to new jobs.”
Chiarot hopes that additive manufacturing techniques such as his own will restore the manufacturing spirit of the USA, in a way that has not been seen before: “We need things, both small and large, not just cell phones, but jet engines and replacement parts, too,” the engineer explained. “Manufacturing positions will come back, but it won’t be an assembly line.”
Posted in 3D Printing Technology
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