Aug 18, 2016 | By Alec

While the 3D printing world does sometimes see those fairy tale events where a bunch of guys in a garage pioneer a fantastic idea, the 3D printing innovations of tomorrow are increasingly coming out of huge laboratories. And no 3D printing lab in the world is bigger or more successful than the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), where huge numbers of scientists are working on improving all aspects of 3D printing in a several specialized 3D printing labs. While normally a semi-secretive institute closed to the public eye, the LLNL just shared a behind-the-scenes look at three of their labs. A perfect opportunity for taking a tour of the LLNL labs and a closer look at their latest tech innovations.

As you might know, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is actually affiliated with the University of California and based in Livermore. While we in the 3D printing world obviously best know the lab for its 3D printing innovations, it’s actually a huge organization employing thousands of scientists working on countless innovations. Among others, they have built some of the world’s fastest supercomputers, has put five new elements on the periodic table and are even working on tech that can deflect asteroids.

But it’s hardly surprising that the LLNL is not completely open about their work. Founded back in 1952, it even started out as a nuclear innovation lab, before branching out into so many other fields. But it’s still largely funded by the Department of Energy and working on numerous defense projects (such as airport security innovations and cyber spying prevention), so it’s understandable that the LLNL is only partially accessible for the public.

That’s quite unfortunate for us in the 3D printing world, as LLNL is one of the biggest developers when it comes to additive manufacturing and we doubtlessly only see a fraction of the innovations they are working on. Fortunately, the LLNL just pulled back their curtains a bit more with two behind-the-scenes looks, one of their National Ignition Facility (featuring the world’s largest laser) and another of three of their 3D printing labs. Together with an overview of some of LLNL’s latest innovations, and you get a pretty good idea of what they are working on.

What they revealed were labs and studies that reflect the priorities of the 3D printing industry as a whole. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lawrence Livermore’s premier 3D printing focus is on the manufacturing of whole metal parts. In fact, two of the three showcased labs are focused on metal. To illustrate their work, LLNL showcased a rocket engine 3D printed in just eight days, in a single part. “It’s a manufacturing marvel that illustrates the game-changing potential of 3D printing. […] It’s not a simple part. Channels run the length of the bell-shaped opening, curved throughout the body, something that would’ve been impossible with traditional methods,” the LLNL says. While not only much more efficient than existing alternatives, it also cost just $10,000 to build – far cheaper than industry standards.

That is, in a nutshell, what metal 3D printing can bring to numerous industries, and the LLNL is clearly pushing that innovation. Earlier this year, we already saw how the LLNL launched the Accelerated Certification of Additively Manufactured Metals Initiative, which seeks to improve metal 3D printing and encourage its widespread adoption across various industries. The research-based approach will use a combination of physics models, data-mining technologies and uncertainty analyses to optimize 3D printed metal parts and speed up the certification process.

What’s more, their efforts seem to be paying off. Among others, the LLNL already revealed that they discovered what causes the tiny, porous flaws in 3D printed metal structures – paving the way for certifiable and reproducible 3D prints. And just last month, the LLNL revealed a laser design breakthrough using a powder bed SLM 3D printer, one of only four of its kind in the world. Not only does it give them unprecedented control over part development (such as recognizing what areas need additional stiffness), this 3D printing setup also features a ‘feed-forward’ system that makes it far easier to locate flaws and certify parts. While still under development, it’s a huge step towards mass production 3D printing.

But the Lawrence Livermore team is also seeking to break open material conventions in another 3D printing lab. For if there’s one thing that is hampering the 3D printing revolution, it’s that the technology is currently largely limited to existing materials that also used in conventional manufacturing. LLNL researchers are therefore working hard to develop materials with properties that otherwise do not exist in nature. Materials that, for instance, feature unnatural microstructures that guarantee a fantastic strength-to-weight ratio – perfect for defense, aerospace and transportation applications. Back in June, the LLNL already revealed successes with lightweight elastic materials whose cellular structures can be manipulated through 3D printing.

But unique and functional combinations of plastics, metals, ceramics and inks are also regularly produced in that same LLNL lab. Just over the past few months, LLNL has already succesfuly developed 3D printed foam with unprecedented thermal insulation and shock-absorption properties, 3D printed baking soda that can capture harmful CO2 emissions, and a 3D printed polymer that turns methane to methanol. Functional 3D printed materials are thus just around the corner, and a lot more innovations are forthcoming. Just a few weeks ago, the LLNL signed a deal with Giant Leap Technologies to explore the 3D printing of opto-microfluidic structures for solar panels.

Top to bottom: 3D printed foam, baking soda, and liquid smoke.

Of course, such developments go hand-in-hand with unusual 3D printing processes that are adapted to suit these unusual materials. Earlier this summer, the LLNL revealed that direct ink writing 3D printing had been adapted to 3D print graphene aerogel, which can improve the energy storage capacity of batteries and ultra-light supercapacitors. A similar process was used for 3D printed ‘liquid smoke’ aerogel, an extremely low-density solid that exhibits a low thermal conductivity. Back in 2015, LNLL optical engineer Bryan Moran also pioneered a new SLA 3D printing technique called Large-Area Projection Micro-Stereolithography (LAPµSL), which uses UV light to create 3D objects that are larger and more detailed than previously possible with regular micro-SLA tech.

Bottom: The LAPµSL 3D printer

The list certainly doesn’t stop there. The LLNL isn’t even just about inanimate objects and metal, as they are also working on 3D bioprinting innovations – having already successfully 3D printed human cells that can self-assemble into blood vessels – crucial for keeping other organs and tissue alive. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory thus cannot be seen as focusing on just one specialism, as they are exploring and pushing the limits of 3D printing as a whole. But especially when it comes to metal 3D printing an material innovations, revolutionary changes are about to come out of the LLNL labs.



Posted in 3D Printer Company



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