Jun 2, 2014

Greater freedom in plastic material choices will help fuel growth in 3-D printing markets, according to Lux Research. But use of plastics in 3D printing has been confined mainly to making prototypes since the achieved parts are not strong enough.

One major limitation of plastic-based 3D printing is the weak bond between printed layers. Many researchers are trying to address this through the use of reinforcements and surface treatments. Brandon Sweeney, a chemical engineering graduate student at Texas Tech, is researching techniques to improve the strength and durability of 3D printed parts. He is part of a project working with 3D printing and a technique that increases the strength of materials used in the process to decrease that limitation in some 3D-printed products.

Sweeney points out the weakness is in the interface between printed layers. So what is the solution to this problem? Carbon nanotubes. Carbon Nanotubes, because of their small size, and the way they are bonded, has some unique properties. In addition to be stronger than steel, and more conductive than carbon, Carbon nanotubes have unique response to microwave energy: It will bond with other materials if heated.

"We could use this unique property of carbon nanotubes to thermally bond all layers of a 3D printed object together," Sweeney said.

Researchers, including Sweeney, Micah Green, professor of chemical engineering, and Mohammed Saed, professor of electrical engineering, coated original printer filament with carbon nanotubes and then fed the material into a 3D printer. The 3D printer printed out layers of plastic with carbon nanotubes in between, just like a sandwich. Then the finished object was exposed to microwaves - in a few seconds those interfaces were heated up rapidly, welding those layers together.

This method can strengthen the 3D printed parts, and the impact will be huge, according to Sweeney. With right combination of the Carbon Nanotubes, you will have the right mechanical, magnetic, electrical, thermal, optical properties of 3D printed objects, by controlling where these nanomaterials are placed, and how they are assembled. That, in turn, will open the door to every home and business someday being its own factory.

Sweeney expects that NASA could be one of the groups that might be interested in his work, using these light and strong 3D printed parts in their modules for their experiments in the space.

"We now have a provisional patent and are working to do publications and develop our product in industry," Sweeney told the Daily Toreador. "We're also seeking industrial partners and funding for the research. We'd really like to buy a nicer printer, more materials and bring on more students to assist in the project."

The team is currently working with plastic-based materials, but Sweeney said he can see the ideas being used to work with any kind of part.

Watch below a TEDx Talk featuring Sweeney Brandon discusses 3D printing and his research.


Posted in 3D Printing Technology


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