Editorial Feature

Can 3D Printing Take Place at the Nanoscale?

Arizona State University (ASU) engineering professor, Dr. Kenan Song, is leading a research team to advance nanoscale 3D printing by developing new MXene nanoparticles with new structures, physical properties, and chemical properties. Song’s research demonstrates how 3D printing at the nanoscale could take the technology to new heights.

Image Credit: Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock.com

Song and his team are developing advanced methods of exactly replicating printed patterns at nanoscale dimensions (between 0.1 and 100 nm).

Precise nanomanufacturing that enables patterning on surfaces or interfaces is critical to transferring high-performance nanoparticle properties when scaled up in devices, such as the chips in iPhones,” said Song. However, it is currently challenging to achieve this consistently due to the unpredictable nature of irregular nanoparticle powders.

To address this difficulty, Song’s team is developing a 3D printing process called Multiphase Direct Ink Writing. This will make manufacturing more precise at nanoscale resolutions and enable a wider range of materials to be used.

Song said, “With unprecedented speeds and resolutions, our additive manufacturing method will provide a fundamental understanding of 3D printing principles involving both machine design and material science studies.”

Song is leading a multidisciplinary research team to develop nanoscale 3D printing. The team includes polymer scientists, nanoparticle synthesis experts, and interfacial engineers, all exploring how materials interact at the level of molecules and atoms.

What Scale Do We Typically 3D Print at Today?

3D printing is an additive manufacturing (AM) technique for producing three-dimensional objects one layer of material at a time. As an AM method, 3D printing does not require molds or forms, as is the case with traditional subtractive methods.

3D printing is a relatively cheap and fast means of producing 3D objects. It is currently used for rapid prototyping and small-scale manufacturing for custom designs. It enables significant design freedom, removing the spatial or structural limitations of traditional manufacturing and prototyping methods. 3D printing is materials-efficient, with the potential for no-waste or low-waste manufacturing.

Its applications range from prototyping to rapid on-site tooling and mass production. The current state-of-the-art 3D printing systems are targeted at engineering applications, with much research and development focused on applying different materials with advanced features in 3D printing contexts.

Most devices and applications for 3D printing are on the centimeter scale size, with workable dimensions of around 1 mm to 1 m. Beyond these sizes, there are mechanical and material challenges limiting 3D printing applications to specialist, bespoke, or research applications. However, the benefits of 3D printing do, in theory, extend beyond the typical size limitations of the technology today, and research is also focused on advancing both ends of the scale of spatial limitations for 3D printing today.

Why Is 3D Printing at the Nanoscale Significant?

To establish additive manufacturing firmly in the mass manufacturing industry and move it beyond its current place as a useful tool for bench-scale rapid prototyping, a number of technology challenges need to be overcome. These include incorporating multiple materials at multiple scales of size with multiple manufacturing functions in the same printing platform.

Including discontinuous particles in polymer matrices is important for developing high-performance composites and structurally, chemically, and electronically functional 3D-printed objects. These particles include nanoscale carbons and ceramic powders.

Currently, however, 3D printing’s resolution control is limited to the microscale at best. This has, in turn, limited the capacity of 3D printers to customize the order and alignment of nanoscale particles in composite materials prints. As a result, 3D printed materials are made with too many defects, which perform poorly compared to traditionally manufactured counterparts.

Improving the resolution of 3D printing will make 3D printing a more scalable and efficient tool for manufacturing and prototyping.

How Does the New Research Compare to the State-of-the-Art?

Additive manufacturing methods tend to use external forces (electricity, magnetism, sound waves) to place nanoparticles at specific locations in 3D-printed objects accurately. But these methods are not always suitable and do not work for all types of nanoparticles.

As a result, microscale 3D printing (between 0.1 and 100 μm) represents the current state-of-the-art for small-scale AM. SLA is a 3D printing method that uses vat polymerization with photocurable polymers. The liquid polymers are solidified by visible, UV, and laser light sources. Recent developments have led to μSLA, which focuses the light beam on an area just a few micrometers in scale, using a precise beam and controlled scanning system.

What Are the Applications for Nanoscale 3D Printing?

Song’s Multiphase Direct Ink Writing method will have broad applications in industry and research. Sensor prototyping, soft robotics, actuator manufacturing, supercapacitors, batteries, and regenerative medicine would all benefit from more accurate nanoscale 3D printing.

Stanford University researchers have also developed a new nanoscale 3D printing method. In a paper published in Science in 2022, the team demonstrated a 3D-printed nanoscale lattice made out of a new material that could absorb twice the energy that other 3D-printed materials could absorb at this density.

This material could have applications in satellites, drones, and microelectronics, providing impact protection with a very low weight payoff. “There’s a lot of interest right now in designing different types of 3D structures for mechanical performance,” said Dr. Wendy Gu, an author of the paper.

What we’ve done on top of that is develop a material that is really good at resisting forces, so it’s not just the 3D structure, but also the material that provides very good protection.

Dr. Wendy Gu, Author, Mechanical Engineering, Standford University

These new materials and methods for 3D printing at the nanoscale are still in the early stages of their research but will likely become widespread in the near future due to their desirable and highly tunable features, the wider benefits of 3D printing, and ever-decreasing price points for this technology.

Continue reading: Enhancing the Thermal Properties of 3D Printed Products

References and Further Reading

Castañón, L. (2022) New nanoscale 3D printing material designed by Stanford engineers could offer better structural protection for satellites, drones, and microelectronics. [Online] Stanford. Available at: https://news.stanford.edu/press-releases/2022/11/17/new-nanoscale-3dtural-protection/ 

Clement, M. (2022) 3D printing at the nanoscale produces powerful possibilities. [Online] ASU. Available at: https://news.asu.edu/20220502-3d-printing-nanoscale-produces-powerful-possibilities 

Li, Q., et al (2022) Mechanical nanolattices printed using nanocluster-based photoresists. Science, 378(6621), pp. 768–773 doi.org/10.1126/science.abo6997

Xu, W., et al (2021) 3D Printing-Enabled Nanoparticle Alignment: A Review of Mechanisms and Applications. Small Journal, 17(45), p. 2100817 doi.org/10.1002/smll.202100817

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Ben Pilkington

Written by

Ben Pilkington

Ben Pilkington is a freelance writer who is interested in society and technology. He enjoys learning how the latest scientific developments can affect us and imagining what will be possible in the future. Since completing graduate studies at Oxford University in 2016, Ben has reported on developments in computer software, the UK technology industry, digital rights and privacy, industrial automation, IoT, AI, additive manufacturing, sustainability, and clean technology.

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