Mar 1, 2017 | By Tess

Researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have successfully 3D printed aerospace-grade carbon fiber composites, becoming the first research lab to do so. Described as the “ultimate material,” carbon fiber composites open up possibilities for the creation of lightweight, stronger-than-steel parts.

The research, which was published yesterday in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, presents how the LLNL researchers were able to advance micro-extrusion 3D printing techniques for carbon fiber composites. The material, which offers incredible properties in terms of strength, weight, and temperature resistance, has until recently been difficult to work with, especially for the production of complex shapes. Additive manufacturing has provided a solution to this challenge, and now researchers from LLNL say they have advanced the technique even more.

Typically, carbon fiber composites are made by either winding filaments around a mandrel or by weaving the carbon fibers together. These methods, while efficient, tend to restrict the structures of objects being made to flat or cylindrical shapes. Now, however, the researchers, led by Jim Lewicki, have demonstrated that complex 3D structures can be made through an additive manufacturing process.

The 3D printing process they used was a modified type of Direct Ink Writing (DIW), also called Robocasting. According to Lewicki, the researchers developed a new, patented chemistry that is capable of curing the material in seconds rather than hours. LLNL’s high-performance computing capabilities were employed to accurately predict the flow of carbon fiber filaments.

As Lewicki explains, “How we got past the clogging was through simulation. This has been successful in large part because of the computational models.” The computational modeling used by LLNL consisted of simulating thousands of carbon fibers flowing through the 3D printer’s ink nozzle, which allowed the researchers to determine how best to align the fibers during the actual process.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

"We developed a numerical code to simulate a non-Newtonian liquid polymer resin with a dispersion of carbon fibers; with this code, we can simulate evolution of the fiber orientations in 3D under different printing conditions," explained fluid analyst Yuliya Kanarska. "We were able to find the optimal fiber length and optimal performance, but it's still a work in progress. Ongoing efforts are related to achieving even better alignment of the fibers by applying magnetic forces to stabilize them.”

The new 3D printing and simulation process developed by the researchers will allow for more complex parts to be accurately produced using carbon fiber composites. According to the LLNL team, this includes having more control over the mesostructure of 3D printed parts. Ultimately, being able to 3D print using carbon fiber, a conductive material, would allow for the creation of parts such as high-performance airplane wings, satellite components that are insulated on one side (removing the need for rotation), and insulating wearables.

Additionally, one of the most exciting prospects of the new 3D printing technique is that it could allow for all the carbon fibers to be oriented in the same direction in the 3D printed part, offering an even higher performance compared to carbon fiber parts that have random alignment. One of the benefits of aligned fibers, is the ability to maintain strength properties while using as much as 2/3 less carbon fiber.

Currently, the LLNL researchers are working on improving and optimizing their innovative process. The researchers have reportedly been in contact with commercial, aerospace, and defence partners about further advancing their carbon fiber 3D printing technology.



Posted in 3D Printing Materials



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