It's now possible to 3D print extremely viscous materials, with the consistency of clay or cookie dough with fine precision, thanks to work done at Purdue University. This development may soon allow the creation of customized ceramics, solid rockets, pharmaceuticals, biomedical implants, foodstuffs, and more.
"It’s very exciting that we can print materials with consistencies that no one’s been able to print." says Emre Gunduz, assistant research professor in the School of Mechanical Engineering. "We can 3D print different textures of food; biomedical implants, like dental crowns made of ceramics, can be customized. Pharmacies can 3D print personalized drugs, so a person only has to take one pill, instead of 10."
By applying high-amplitude ultrasonic vibrations to the nozzle of the 3D printer itself, the Purdue team was able to solve a problem that has bedeviled manufacturers for years.
Most proposed solutions to this problem involve changing the composition of the materials themselves, but the Purdue team took a completely different approach.
"We found that by vibrating the nozzle in a very specific way, we can reduce the friction on the nozzle walls, and the material just snakes through," Gunduz says.
The Purdue team has been able to print items with 100-micron precision, which is better than most consumer-level 3D printers, while maintaining high print rates.
The research is being conducted at Purdue's Zucrow Labs, the largest academic propulsion lab in the world. As such, the first practical application being explored is for solid rocket fuel.
"Solid propellants start out very viscous, like the consistency of cookie dough," says Monique McClain, a Ph.D. candidate in Purdue's School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. "It’s very difficult to print because it cures over time, and it’s also very sensitive to temperature. But with this method, we were actually able to print strands of solid propellant that burned comparably to traditionally cast methods."
McClain tested the combustion by printing two-centimeter samples, igniting them in a high-pressure vessel (up to 1,000 pounds per square inch) and analyzing slow-motion video of the burn.
For solid rocket fuels, 3D printing offers the opportunity to customize the geometry of a rocket and modify its combustion. "We may want to have certain parts burn faster or slower, or something that burns faster in the center than the outside," McClain says. "We can create this much more precisely with this 3D printing method."
The research was published in a recent issue of the journal Additive Manufacturing, DOI number 10.1016.
Abstract: Heterogeneous materials used in biomedical, structural and electronics applications contain a high fraction of solids (>60 vol.%) and exhibit extremely high viscosities (μ > 1000 Pa s), which hinders their 3D printing using existing technologies. This study shows that inducing high-amplitude ultrasonic vibrations within a nozzle imparts sufficient inertial forces to these materials to drastically reduce effective wall friction and flow stresses, enabling their 3D printing with moderate back pressures (<1 MPa) at high rates and with precise flow control. This effect is utilized to demonstrate the printing of a commercial polymer clay, an aluminum-polymer composite and a stiffened fondant with viscosities up to 14,000 Pa·s with minimal residual porosity at rates comparable to thermoplastic extrusion. This new method can significantly extend the type of materials that can be printed to produce functional parts without relying on special shear/thermal thinning formulations or solvents to lower viscosity of the plasticizing component. The high yield strength of the printed material also allows freeform 3D fabrication with minimal need for supports.
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