Scientists successful in slashing ceramic 3D printing costs by 95% using novel approach

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A team of researchers from Western University, Canada, and the University of Trento, Italy, have developed a new low-cost method of 3D printing fully dense ceramic structures.

The approach only utilizes an affordable desktop FFF 3D printer and materials known as polymer-derived ceramics (PDCs). In essence, preceramic structures can be printed in their polymer states and fired in a furnace to achieve high-resolution ceramic parts, all without the hassle and costs associated with directly 3D printing ceramics.

The international team believes its work could have major implications for applications such as high-temperature systems and even bone tissue regeneration, providing accessibility in fields typically synonymous with high barriers to entry.

Dr Joshua Pearce, a co-author of the study, states, “In our approach, preceramic polymers can be shaped in the polymer state and then pyrolyzed to produce different types of ceramics. Cellular ceramics can be manufactured using this technique. In our study, the novel fabrication of cellular ceramics with a two-step process using PDCs is reported.”

SEM imaging of the 3D printed ceramic structures during a high-temperature stability test. Image via Western University.
SEM imaging of the 3D printed ceramic structures during a high-temperature stability test. Image via Western University.

Challenges with ceramic 3D printing

In both industry and academia, we’ve made significant advances in the 3D printing of fully dense ceramics, utilizing a whole host of additive manufacturing technologies such as stereolithography, binder jetting, and even powder bed fusion. Unfortunately, many of the systems and materials required for ceramic 3D printing are relatively costly and difficult to operate, limiting access to complex ceramic parts.

PDCs – ceramic materials formed by the pyrolysis of preceramic polymers – provide an alternate route to ceramic 3D printing without many of the hurdles. These materials can be printed in their easier-to-process polymer forms before the final post-processing stage. Still, according to Pearce and his team, there’s a lack of research when it comes to integrating FFF 3D printing with PDCs.

TPU and polysilazane

To kick the project off, the researchers impregnated thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU)-based filaments with preceramic polymer (polysilazane). The resulting impregnated material was then used to 3D print a set of cellular structures which were pyrolyzed to produce fully dense SiOC(N) – the final ceramic material.

The printed ceramic structures were found to be able to tolerate operating temperatures of up to 1500°C, all while being manufactured on a desktop Lulzbot 3D printer with readily available materials. The researchers calculated that they could 3D print these complex ceramic structures for less than 5% of the cost of comparable methods.

Additionally, the SiOC(N) parts were determined to be biocompatible, promoting rapid cell adhesion on their surfaces. The early-stage cell activation on the components was even shown to be tunable by adjusting the material’s porosity, enabling the team to mimic human bone tissue geometries to allow for bone regeneration applications.

As far as future work goes, Pearce and his team intend to modify the printing method by either adding nanofiller additives or fine-tuning the TPU-based filament. This could expand the possible applications of the technique to use-cases such as active filters, catalytic converters, and electrically conductive components.

Further details of the study can be found in the paper titled ‘SiOC(N) Cellular Structures with Dense Struts by Integrating Fused Filament Fabrication 3D Printing with Polymer-Derived Ceramics’. It is co-authored by Joshua Pearce et al.

A cell growth experiment on the 3D printed ceramic structures. Image via Western University.
A cell growth experiment on the 3D printed ceramic structures. Image via Western University.

The applications of 3D printed ceramics span far and wide. Researchers from the Chinese Shenzhen University and Southwestern Institute of Physics recently developed a means of additive manufacturing ceramic structures that emit nuclear reactor fuel. Utilizing lithium-loaded ceramics and DLP 3D printing, the team has been able to create ‘breeding blankets’ that self-sufficiently generate tritium, a vital element of the nuclear fusion process.

Elsewhere, ceramic specialist CeramTec recently successfully produced a new generation of ceramic sample containers for a space experiment facility on the International Space Station (ISS). The containers, which started their journey to the ISS on the SpaceX-22 in June, will be used to facilitate the precision measurements of certain thermophysical properties of metals, alloys, and semiconductors, which are not possible on Earth.

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Featured image shows a cell growth experiment on the 3D printed ceramic structures. Image via Western University.