Mar 31, 2016 | By Alec

Whenever concepts for commercial 3D printed accessories are discussed, 3D printed, custom-made and sensor-packed wearables are often immediately brought up. Their development, however, is currently being hampered by existing 3D printing techniques – which are everything but suited to 3D print materials onto flexible surfaces. All that might change, however, as a team of NASA researchers has just revealed that they have pioneered a new plasma-based 3D printing technology that is capable of 3D printing nanomaterials onto existing structures – including 3D objects and flexible surfaces, such as paper and cloth.

This new technique has been developed by research teams from the NASA Ames Research Center and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratoryand is described in the latest edition of Applied Physics Letters (AIP Publishing), in an article entitled Plasma jet printing for flexible substrates. The technique, as the article explains, would make it a lot easier and more affordable to build 3D printed wearable sensors, flexible memory devices, batteries, and integrated circuits – opening the way for wide range of innovations, from smart clothing and medical sensors to the full integration of our surroundings with the “Internet of Things”.

Of course, nanomaterial deposition is already possible, for instance with inkjet prints that deposit layers of nanoparticles or nanotubes. These, however, are quite limited and the printers cannot 3D print onto textiles or other flexible materials, and 3D shapes are problematic. What’s more, all materials have to be inks – which severely limits your options. Some successes have also been had using aerosol printing techniques, but this invariably requires the materials to be heated to several hundreds of degrees – making it impossible to 3D print onto existing materials, like cloth, that cannot take the heat.

Fortunately, none of these problems affect this new plasma 3D printing technique as it works at temperatures of not much warmer than 40° C (104° F), and no additional heating is necessary. Materials used in the technique reportedly don’t even need to be fully liquid. And, as it uses a nozzle that moves along 3 axes, 3D printing on three dimensional or flexible objects isn’t a problem at all. “You can use it to deposit things on paper, plastic, cotton, or any kind of textile,” said Meyya Meyyappan of NASA Ames Research Center. “It's ideal for soft substrates.”

To demonstrate the technique, the NASA team 3D printed a layer of carbon nanotubes, mixed into a plasma of helium ions, onto paper. The plasma focuses the particles onto the surface, forming the layer without the need for more heat. This technique was also used to 3D print two simple chemical and biological sensors, featuring certain molecules that alter the electrical resistance of the nanotubes. Measuring these changes enables the identification of molecule concentrations. The chemical sensor made with this technique is capable of detecting ammonia gas, while the biological sensor detects dopamine, which is linked to medical complications such as Parkinson's disease and epilepsy.

But these are just simple proofs of concepts, Meyyappan said. “There's a wide range of biosensing applications.” From sensors that measure health markers like cholesterol to sensors for pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella, anything is possible. Most importantly, the plasma 3D printing method can be easily scaled up to make sensors of any size – even a ‘showerhead’ nozzle is possible. It could even freely spray nanomaterials onto existing objects. “It can do things inkjet printing cannot do,” Meyyappan said. “But anything inkjet printing can do, it can be pretty competitive.”

This potentially revolutionary 3D printing technique is now already reaching the commercialization phase, Meyyappan further revealed, adding that it should be relatively inexpensive to develop further. They are currently looking to options for 3D printing other kinds of materials, such as copper – which could be used to 3D print batteries onto other sheets of metal. Even thinner smartphone batteries are thus not far away. This might be the breakthrough the electronics industry is waiting for.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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