Feb 13, 2018 | By Benedict

Researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have developed a new process for the 3D printing of nanoscale metal structures. The process could be used to make tiny logic circuits, lightweight aircraft components, and more.

Lead author Andrey Vyatskikh with nanoscale 3D metal structure atop a silicone substrate

(Image: Caltech)

It might seem surprising, but some of the biggest advancements for large-scale 3D printing applications like aircraft and automobile parts are actually taking place on a tiny, tiny scale. That’s because 3D printing complex structures at a small scale can result in parts that are much stronger across their entire structure.

A study at Caltech has resulted in a new 3D printing process for creating complex nanoscale metal structures. The process allows researchers to synthesize organic scaffolds that contain metal ions, letting them print metallic structures that are “orders of magnitude smaller than previously possible.”

Although its end-use is for manmade systems like aircraft and computers, the new nanoscale 3D printing process works using organic ligands—molecules that bond to metal—to make a polymer-based resin. This resin acts as a kind of scaffold for metals.

In the study, the Caltech team bonded these organic molecules with nickel to create a syrupy liquid, which could then be hit with a two-photon laser to create stronger chemical bonds between the organic molecules. This laser zapping stage can be used to create a 3D part, just like other laser-based additive manufacturing methods.

3D printed nickel lattice with 150-nanometer layers

(Image: Greer Lab)

When the bonds become stronger, the structure hardens, and the nickel atoms—themselves bonded to the organic molecules—become incorporated into the structure.

Next, the entire 3D printed structure is heated in an oven up to 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,800 degrees Fahrenheit) in a vacuum chamber. This vaporizes the organic materials, but leaves the nickel intact while also fusing the metal particles together.

This produces a strange effect. Since a large amount of the material has been vaporized, the structure ends up around 80 per cent smaller than before heating. However, it maintains its former shape and proportions.

“That final shrinkage is a big part of why we're able to get structures to be so small,” explains graduate student Andrey Vyatskikh, lead author of the study. “In the structure we built for the paper, the diameter of the metal beams in the printed part is roughly 1/1000th the size of the tip of a sewing needle.”

The researchers say this unusual method could be used to fabricate tiny medical implants, 3D logic circuits on computer chips, and even incredibly lightweight aircraft components.

The Caltech team now plans to refine and scale up the 3D printing process while attempting to incorporate other metals besides nickel.

The study, “Additive manufacturing of 3D nano-architected metals,” has been published in Nature Communications. The work was overseen by senior author Julia Greer, a professor of materials science, mechanics, and medical engineering in Caltech's Division of Engineering and Applied Science.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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