Research

ECAM could be the low cost alternative metal 3D printing is looking for

Electrochemical Additive Manufacturing (ECAM) is a new metal 3D printing method in development as a low cost alternative to other techniques such as direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) and selective laser melting (SLM).

In place of a high temperature laser for melting metal feedstock, ECAM builds objects using a liquid solution of electrified metal ions, a process based on the principle of electroplating.

A group of researchers at Imperial College London (ICL) have recently published a paper reporting on the progress of their ECAM approach, demonstrating its ability to 3D print copper objects.

ICL's ECAM setup. Image via Advanced Materials Technologies
ICL’s ECAM setup. Image via Advanced Materials Technologies

Opposites attract

ICL’s ECAM 3D printer uses the popular FDM method for creating 3D objects. Instead of a typical hot end though, material is deposited layer by layer through a plastic syringe with a positively charged anode in the tip.

The ink inside the syringe is composed of copper sulphate. In operation, a positively charged meniscus of the ink forms at the end of the print head.

When an electrical charge (potential) is applied, the copper ions are attracted to the negative cathode bed, leaving a metallic deposit.

The ink meniscus at the end of ICL's ECAM 3D printer syringe. Image via Advanced Materials Technologies
The ink meniscus at the end of ICL’s 3D printer syringe. Image via Advanced Materials Technologies

ECAM’s potential

Elsewhere, copper has been successfully 3D printed on a small scale as an electrical component, and on a larger by using a green laser in place of the red. With further development, it is hoped that the ECAM method could become a viable, low-cost alternative to other approaches.

In an article for Science Trends Billy Wu, lead author of the ICL ECAM paper, explains the further potential of the novel, ambient temperature approach. “Asides from the low-cost nature of the printer,” he writes, “this process can be subtractive as well as additive.”

“…if the potential was reversed the metal would go back into solution, opening up the possibility for material recycling. Furthermore, with multiple print heads, multi-metal 3D printing can be enabled.”

ECAM 3D printed samples and SEM images of their respective surface structures. Image via Advanced Materials Technologies
UCL’s 3D printed copper samples and SEM images of their respective surface structures. Image via Advanced Materials Technologies

For further information about ICL’s ECAM process, read the supporting paper by Xiaolong Chen, Xinhua Liu, Peter Childs, Nigel Brandon and Billy Wu published in the journal Advanced Materials Technologies.

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Featured image shows ECAM 3D printed samples spelling out Imperial College London initials. Uncut original image via Advanced Materials Technologies