Form fitting control panels, stretchable sensors, self healing smartphone screens – this is the future presented by 3D printed flexible electronics. Versatile components made using this technology are currently in development, and researchers at Oregon State University (OSU) have made a new discovery.
By combining Galinstan, a liquid metal alloy, with nickel, the team successfully created a paste that could be 3D printed into stretchy, electrically conductive components.
3D printing liquid metals
Galinstan assumes a liquid state at room temperature and, unlike the element mercury, it is non-toxic – so its rheological properties make it an attractive alternative in manufacturing. In order to 3D print Galinstan it must be combined with another material, which is not an easy challenge. As an alloy it is aggressively corrosive and would typically dissolve soft metals like aluminum. The researchers used sonication, the power of sound, to mix Galinstand and nickel together.
Yiğit Mengüç, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at OSU, explains, “The runny alloy was impossible to layer into tall structures. With the paste-like texture, it can be layered while maintaining its capacity to flow, and to stretch inside of rubber tubes.”
The potential of the team’s discovery was demonstrated by 3D printing a stretchy component containing two complete circuits that overlap without touching each other.
The future of electronics
The team has big visions for the technology. Doğan Yirmibeşoğlu, a robotics Ph.D. student at OSU adds, “The future is very bright,”
“It’s easy to imagine making soft robots that are ready for operation, that will just walk out of the printer.”
“Rheological Modification of Liquid Metal for Additive Manufacturing of Stretchable Electronics“ is published online in Advanced Materials Technologies journal. It is co-authored by Uranbileg Daalkhaijav, Osman Dogan Yirmibesoglu, Stephanie Walker,
and Yigit Mengüç.
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Featured image shows 3D printed tests of OSU’s lquid metal paste. Image via Advanced Materials Technologies.