Jul 13, 2016 | By Benedict

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have predicted that atomic-scale 3D printing techniques could be used to create stronger, lighter, and smarter materials. Focused electron- and ion-based methods could be used to develop quantum computers, efficient solar cells, and other technology.

In a paper published in the journal ACS Nano, ORNL researchers have reviewed several methods of atomic-scale 3D nanofabrication, suggesting ways in which the processes could be refined in order to perfect the art of creating material at the atomic scale. While traditional 3D printers deal with shapes divided into layers which are then turned into physical objects, the process known as “directed matter” involves fabricating structures atom by atom. Scientists believe that this form of additive manufacturing could allow manufacturers of the future to create near-perfect materials with incredibly precise structures. “Being able to assemble matter atom by atom in 3D will enable us to design materials that are stronger and lighter, more robust in extreme environments, and [which] provide economical solutions for energy, chemistry and informatics,” said Olga Ovchinnikova, one of the paper’s authors.

While traditional fabrication techniques have served mankind well for millennia, and while more recent additive manufacturing techniques have provided scientists with an incredibly efficient and precise means of creating materials, the ORNL researchers believe that the directed matter approach will usher in a new dawn of materials and technology fabrication. Importantly, they believe the improvements provided by this technology will be more significant than any previous paradigm shift: “For the vast majority of recorded history, material transformation was limited to objects visible to the naked eye and patterned using hand-held tools,” the researchers wrote. “We can admire the prowess of the rice grain writing, or fine engraving on a prized sword blade, but only two to three orders of magnitude separate these masterpieces from Stone Age technology.”

By directing matter with atomic precision, scientists could create quantum computers, more efficient and powerful cell phones, better solar cells, and stronger and cheaper materials. And while the “full control of atomic arrangement and bonding in three dimensions” has not yet been mastered, the researchers believe that—however and wherever it ends up evolving—the technology will form an integral part of future technologies: “It’s actually difficult to predict where this could go and how this technology could change our lives, but we intend to find out,” Ovchinnikova said.

3D structure created in a microscope: structure (left) and simulation (right)

A transmission electron microscope (Image: Tecnai)

Unusually for such a futuristic technology, much of the directed matter concept depends upon older apparatus developed for other uses, and builds upon decades of scientific research. The 1930s-era transmission electron microscope, for example, has enabled single-atom imaging, chemical strain imaging, and picometer-level structural mapping. By using such instruments, scientists are able to fabricate new materials with sub-10-nanometer feature resolution. “This interaction, combined with imaging of electron (and recently ion) microscopy can be used as a basis for a next generation of nanofabrication tools,” said  Stephen Jesse, lead author on the paper.

The paper, which explains several methods of atomic 3D fabrication and assesses their constraints, is titled “Directing Matter: Toward Atomic-Scale 3D Nanofabrication.” Its authors were Jesse, Albina Y. Borisevich, Jason D. Fowlkes, Andrew R. Lupin, Philip D. Rack, Raymond R. Unocic, Bobby G. Sumpter, Sergei V. Kalinin, Alex Belianinov, and Ovchinnikova.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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