3D manufacturing method enables precise nanoscale 3D printing for first time

Researchers at Washington State University have developed a new 3D printing method that for the first time allows materials to be precisely and quickly created between the nanoscale and macroscale. As a result, it can produce materials with a strong structural resemblance to wood or bone.

The research involved the 3D printing of foglike microdroplets that contain nanoparticles of silver. The droplets are deposited at specific locations and as the liquid in the droplet evaporates, the nanoparticles remain to create incredibly delicate looking structures. Despite their apparent delicacy however, the structures are porous, have an extremely large surface area and are very strong.

“This is a groundbreaking advance in the 3D architecturing of materials at nano- to macroscales with applications in batteries, lightweight ultrastrong materials, catalytic converters, supercapacitors and biological scaffolds,” said Rahul Panat, associate professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, who led the research.

“This technique can fill a lot of critical gaps for the realization of these technologies.”

Silver was used for the initial research due to its easy workability. However, Panat says that any other material that can crushed into nanoparticles, a description that applies to nearly all materials, could be used in place of silver.

The manufacturing method itself bears resemblance to a natural, although rare, process found over the western African deserts. In these deserts, crystalline flower-like structures known as “desert roses” form when tiny fog droplets containing sulphur evaporate over the heat of the desert earth.

Mirroring this phenomenon, the researchers’ method produced a variety of structures, including microscaffolds that contain solid truss members like a bridge, electronic connections that resemble accordion bellows, doughnut-shaped pillars or spirals. Thanks to the basis in 3D printing, they were able to do so highly efficiently, allowing for the possibility of scaling up to large-scale manufacturing.

Image courtesy of Washington State University

Going forward, the research team believes that their method can be used in a number of industrial applications. Due to the minimal waste produced and the speed of manufacture, the development of such nanoscale and porous metal structures is applicable to, for example, the development finely detailed, porous anodes and cathodes for batteries, rather than the solid structures that are now used.

If successful on this front, the researcher’s work would transform the way in which the industry operates. The shift from solid structure to porous anodes could drastically increase battery speed and capacity and, furthermore, allow the energy industry to make use of new and higher energy materials.

Panat was assisted in the project by graduate students Mohammad Sadeq Saleh and Chunshan Hu. The research is in keeping with WSU’s Grand Challenges initiative stimulating research to address some of society’s most complex issues. The team’s work is reported on in the Science Advances journal and they have filed for a patent on the method.

3D food printers head for mass production

By the end of the year, 3D food printers will be in people’s homes for the first time, with the first thought to be produced by Natural Machines.

While a few companies have been working on the technology, Natural Machine’s Foodini looks to be the first in an oncoming wave of mass production in 3D food printing.

The Foodini machine is an open capsule model, in which the user places fresh ingredients and then tells the Foodini what to make with them. For example, rather than hand making ravioli from start to finish, you just load the dough and filling into the machine and it will print individual ravioli for you.

3D printed burgers made using a Foodini 3D food printer

3D printed burgers made using a Foodini 3D food printer

The notion behind the machine, and where it fits into average household usage, is to encourage better eating.

According to the Natural Machines website: “Today, too many people eat too much convenience foods, processed foods, packaged foods, or pre-made meals – many with ingredients that are unidentifiable to the common consumer, versus homemade, healthy foods and snacks. But there is the problem of people not having enough time to make homemade foods from scratch.

“Enter Foodini. Foodini is a kitchen appliance that takes on the difficult parts of making food that is hard or time-consuming to make fully by hand. By 3D printing food, you automate some of the assembly or finishing steps of home cooking, thus making it easier to create freshly made meals and snacks.”  

The notion of replacing the hand crafting process of cooking with 3D printing may well seem a strange one, perhaps raising concerns of a reduction of people’s skill and effort. While it is certainly a better option than potentially more suspect ready meals, there is an element to which the idea of machines like the Foodini may detract from the craft of cooking.

However, although it allows those who would not usually be in a position to hand make ravioli to enjoy food they would otherwise not, it may also make it too easy for those who are able to make said food to simply not bother.  

The Foodini 3D food printer. Images courtesy of Natural Machines

The Foodini 3D food printer. Images courtesy of Natural Machines

The worries of excess convenience aside, it is reassuring to see a focus on homemade food and quality eating. And with 3D printing ever developing, a future where we use it to manufacture our meals as well as our homes is perhaps not so far-fetched. As to when you should expect this, it is hard to say.

The Foodini currently sells at $4,000, somewhat above what the average consumer can be expected to spend. Yet if successful, a growing market could see the price steadily come down to the point where, in the future, we may expect every home to utilise 3D printing as a regular part of their cooking.

Natural Machines’ device will be initially released by the end of the year, but the next production batch will not be available until some time in 2017. So if you wish to be a part of the first wave of home 3D food printing, place your order quickly.