Apr 28, 2017 | By Tess

A team of scientists from the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) has developed a novel device that combines 3D printing and electroplating to split beams of molecules. The device uses high-voltage electrodes to control the motion of the molecules inside a vacuum.

The innovative process, developed by Sean Gordon and Andreas Osterwalder at EPFL's Institute of Chemical Sciences and Engineering, was recently described in a paper published in Physical Review Applied, and offers an advantageous alternative to existing beam-splitting devices. According to the scientists, their new fabrication method, which uses 3D printing and electroplating, allows for more complex shapes to be produced, and speeds up production rates by 50 to 100 times.

As a press release about the new molecule splitting technology explains, the EPFL scientists were able to successfully build the electrodes using 3D printed plastic parts and electroplating, a technique that coats a conductive material with a metallic layer. Electroplating, commonly used in various industries (including fashion, jewelry, plumbing, and automotive), has not often been adapted for scientific applications. That is, until now.

“The technique begins by 3D printing a plastic piece and then electroplating a 10 μm-thick metal layer onto it,” the press release reads. “To make the printed plastic pieces conductive and thus amenable to electroplating, they were first pre-treated by a special procedure developed by the company Galvotec near Zurich. Once the first conductive layer was applied, the pieces could be treated as if they were metallic. The first step can be applied selectively to certain regions of the printed piece, so that the final device contains some areas that are metallic and conductive while others remain insulating.”

Using this novel process, the scientists were able to construct two electrically independent high-voltage electrodes from a single plastic piece with the right geometry for beam-splitting. The technique also allowed for the researchers to choose from a wide variety of different coating metals, and resulted in high-quality surface finishes, with no scratches, recesses, or abrasions. (A crucial feature for molecular beam-splitting.)

Complete high-voltage electrodes

As mentioned, the new method offers a number of advantages over existing molecular beam-splitting techniques, including a much lower cost and a much faster production time. Whereas it would normally take months to produce the necessary complex structures, with the 3D printing/electroplating method it took only three days (48 hours to 3D print and a day to electroplate).

The fact that 3D printing necessitates a digital workflow also offered the advantage of repeatability. As the researchers explained, “the electrodes are printed directly from a computer and require no manual input. This means that an exact replica of a complete experimental setup can be reproduced anywhere by simply transferring a computer file.”

Overall, the new technology developed by the EPFL researchers demonstrates the potential of 3D printing technologies for scientific applications and research. Specifically, the project has demonstrated that 3D printing can be used to rapidly and cost effectively manufacture “chemically robust electrically conductive pieces with high precision.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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