Aug.11, 2013

Sophisticated cybernetic implants have been a science fiction staple for some time now. Assume cybernetic implants were affordable and painless, would you get an implant that enhanced your vision or hearing?

A team of researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) has found a way to 3D print biocompatible components for tiny sensors, making them ideal for use in bionic arms and cybernetic implants.

Microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) is the technology of very small devices. MEMS sensors, like the accelerometer that orients your smartphone screen vertically or horizontally, gather information from their surroundings by converting movement or chemical signals into electrical signals. MEMS actuators, which may focus your next smartphone's camera, work in the other direction, executing commands by converting electrical signals into movement.

Traditionally these MEMS components, MEMS membranes, are produced from silicon. But the TAU researchers, engineering doctoral candidates Leeya Engel and Jenny Shklovsky, are creating a novel micro-printing process that works a highly flexible and non-toxic organic polymer supplied by French chemical producer Arkema/Piezotech. The resulting 3D printed MEMS membranes can be more comfortably and safely used in the human body and they expend less energy.

This material has specific properties that make it attractive for micro- and nano-scale sensors and actuators. More importantly, the polymer membranes are more suitable for implantation in the human body than their silicon counterparts, which partially stems from the fact that they are hundreds of times more flexible than conventional materials.

In addition, when polymer membranes are used in devices like diagnostic tests and smart prosthetics, it could help make such prosthetics more comfortable, efficient, and safer for use on or inside the body.

The unique properties of the polymer membranes have unlocked unprecedented possibilities. Their flexibility could help make MEMS sensors more sensitive and MEMS motors more energy efficient.

"The use of new, soft materials in micro devices stretches both the imagination and the limits of technology," Engel says, "This field is like Legos for grownups."

"But introducing polymer MEMS to industry can only be realized with the development of 3D printing technologies that allow for low cost mass production. The team's new polymer membranes can already be quickly and inexpensively produced." Engel adds.

The next step, she says, is to use the 3D printing process to make functional sensors and actuators almost entirely out of the polymer at the micro- and nano-scales.


Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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