Aug 24, 2016 | By Tess

A team of researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have made a significant advancement in the field of 4D printing recently, having demonstrated their ability to create additively manufactured structures that can change shape, fold and unfold when they are heated or exposed to electricity. What is especially exciting about the recent breakthrough, is that the LLNL team are the first to combine 3D printing and subsequent folding (through origami methods) with conductive smart materials to make complex structures.

4D printing, for those who may be wondering, is essentially the method of 3D printing an object which can then change its shape or assemble itself over the course of time (often with instigating factors, such as heat, humidity, etc.). Though the technology is still in its early stages, advancements such as the one being discussed will push it forwards and open up potential applications in the medical and aerospace industries, as well as in the creation of flexible circuits and robotic devices.

The LLNL’s research was recently published as an article in the journal Scientific Reports, which details the method used to create 3D printed boxes, spirals, and spheres from shape memory polymers (or SMPs). The material used to print the shapes is an ink made from soybean oil, co-polymers, and carbon nanofibers which can be programmed, so to speak, into a temporary shape at a certain temperature. This shape and temperature are determined by the material’s chemical composition.

As the report explains, when a primary shape printed from such a material was then exposed to a certain amount of ambient heat or heat generated from contact with an electrical current, it began to change shapes and morph into its original shape.

As lead author of the article Jennifer Rodriguez explains, “It’s like baking a cake. You take the part out of the oven before it’s done and set the permanent structure of the part by folding or twisting after an initial gelling of the polymer.”

Rodriguez, a postdoc in LLNL’s Materials Engineering Division, goes on to explain that the innovative smart materials they are working with could eventually be used to create extremely complex and changing parts. “If we printed a part out of multiple versions of these formulations, with different transition temperatures, and run it through a heating ramp, they would expand in a segmented fashion and unpack into something much more complex,” she explains.

So far, the research team has made a number of different structures using their novel direct-ink writing additive manufacturing process, including a bent conductive device that transforms into a straight device when exposed to heat or electricity, a collapsed stent that expands after being exposed to heat, and a number of boxes that either open or close when they are heated. If the technology continues to develop, the 4D printing method could even be used to create such things as unfold-able solar arrays or antennae.

“We have these materials with 3D structures but they have extra smart properties,” explains Lab staff scientist James Lewicki. “They can retain a memory of the previous structure. It opens up a whole new property set. If you can print with these polymer composites you can build things and electrically activate them to unfold. Instead of a dumb lump, you are left with this sentient, responsive material.”

3D printed stent

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Technology

 

 

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