Mar 27, 2018 | By Tess

A team of scientists from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has devised a 3D printing method capable of fabricating entirely liquid structures. The technique uses a special 3D printer to deposit “threads of water” into a base of silicone oil, and could be used for constructing liquid electronics and for chemical synthesis.

3D printing goes way beyond depositing layers of melted plastic to build up a poly vase. As scientists from the Berkeley Lab have shown, the technology even extends to printing structures made entirely of liquid.

That is, by printing thin threads of water into a silicone oil substance, they have demonstrated the ability to 3D print liquid tube structures inside another liquid. At this stage in the research, the scientists have printed threads of water between 10 microns and 1 millimeter in diameter, and have created a number of different structure types, including complex spiral and branch-shaped patterns reaching several meters in length.

As Tom Russell, a visiting faculty scientist at Berkeley Lab who is working on the technology, explains, the 3D printed liquid structures are even able to change their shape and adapt to their surroundings.

(Image: Berkeley Lab)

He says: “It’s a new class of material that can reconfigure itself, and it has the potential to be customized into liquid reaction vessels for many uses, from chemical synthesis to ion transport to catalysis.”

Russell, who worked with Materials Sciences postdoc researcher Joe Forth and a number of other scientists to realize the project, believes the liquid 3D printed technique could have applications in the construction of liquid electronics (in flexible, stretchable devices) as well as in chemical synthesis.

For the latter, the scientists explain that the printed tubes could be “chemically tuned” and have molecules flowing through them, which could offer a new and innovative way to separate molecules or deliver “nanoscale building blocks” to compounds.

In order to actually print liquid into liquid without it turning into…liquid, the scientists had to come up with some innovative solutions. One of these was to coat the tubes of printed water with a special soap-like substance. More precisely, the water tubes were coated in a nanoparticle-derived surfactant which allowed them to retain their shape and prevented them from dispersing into droplets.

The so-called “nanoparticle supersoap” was made by adding gold nanoparticles into water and polymer ligands into oil. When the two liquids come into contact the gold nanoparticles and the polymer ligands try to attach to each other but the oil and water keep them separate.

When the water substance is actually deposited into the oil base, ligands in the oil attach to individual nanoparticles in the water, which ultimately forms the nanoparticle supersoap. The result is a glass-like stabilizing layer between the oil and water which keeps the water threads in position.

“This stability means we can stretch water into a tube, and it remains a tube,” added Russell. “Or we can shape water into an ellipsoid, and it remains an ellipsoid. We’ve used these nanoparticle supersoaps to print tubes of water that last for several months.”

To automate the novel liquid printing process, the researchers modified an off-the-shelf 3D printer by installing a syringe pump and liquid extrusion needle. The 3D printer was then specially programmed to insert the needle into the oil base and to inject the water in a pattern determined by a 3D model

“We can squeeze liquid from a needle, and place threads of water anywhere we want in three dimensions,” explained Forth. “We can also ping the material with an external force, which momentarily breaks the supersoap’s stability and changes the shape of the water threads. The structures are endlessly reconfigurable.”

The innovative 3D printing research was funded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and was recently published in the journal Advanced Materials.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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