It’s hard to believe 3-D desk top printing has been around for more than 30 years. But it’s all grown up and it’s about to do a lot more than make simple plastic models. Scientists at Virginia Tech have come up with a revolutionary breakthrough for printables that could change the way we make everything from cell phones to space ships.
Christopher Williams teaches mechanical engineer at Virginia Tech.
“One of the great things about the excitement about 3-D printing was, these desk top machines that everyone could view and that they could use at their homes," Williams explains. “But we often joke that’s the bane of our existence. Everyone thinks of 3-D printing as nothing but printing a bunch of ‘Yoda’ heads out of low quality polymer.”
Williams runs a design and research space known as the DREAMS Lab - here he explains why that’s the perfect name for this project:
“3-D printing is much more than just printing children’s toys. It really is the future of fabrication and can push the boundaries of what we can currently do.”
To get there, Williams went beyond the DREAMS Lab to another institute at Tech, where they actually make new molecules. Timothy Long’s team has been working for the past year to come up with a new substance durable enough for the machines of the future.
"The challenge was, that we needed to 3-D print something that had incredibly high thermal stability; Something that could withstand temperatures in excess of 600 degrees Centigrade," says Long. "These are the kind of things that go into space. They’re the kind of things that reside in an engine of a car. All of the earlier 3-D printing really focused on what I would call soft materials or jells. You might imagine a contact lens or a scaffold that’s Jello-like.”
Long’s team was working with a well-known thin film polymer called Kapton. It had the heat and cold problems beat, but it can’t be formed into a 3-D object for printing. And as far as Chris Williams knew, there was no substance on earth that could.
“A year ago, I would be in my classroom and telling students what was not possible, saying things like, ‘a polyamide, a fully aromatic polymer is not printable.”
Aromatic in this case doesn’t mean it smells good, it refers to a molecule’s ability to withstand extreme temperatures.
“And then we met Tim and we worked together with his students, and we actually got to erase that line in the sand and that’s what’s really exciting about this discovery; that concurrency, that parallel discovery.”
They came up with a new molecule that added another dimension -- literally. From a 2D thin film, to a 3D printer ready version. It not only handles extreme temperatures, but also the sensors and electronics can actually be printed right onto it.
Timothy Long says, “I think what makes this such a quantum leap is that we’ve taken the completely opposite spectrum of performance. We went from something soft that everyone is doing to something that is incredibly, maybe the highest thermally polymer known to scientists today.”
And that comes in handy in several dimensions. There’s earthbound electronics like smart phones, which could, one day, be entirely printable. And possibly off planet enterprises, says Long. The thin film version of Kapton is already familiar to NASA for heat shielding capsules since the Apollo space missions.
“But rather than wrapping something in a film, let’s make the entire leg out of the Apollo module out of that material. Why wrap something when we can actually make a material function both in a structural way and a protective way.”
High tech industry has already shown interest, patents have been awarded and the sky’s the limit for this space age polymer, that didn’t exist, until now.