Scientists Create Device That Can 3D Print Metal Objects in Mid-Air

May 19, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl

Laser-assisted 3D printing
Photo credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The laser-assisted 3D printing technology could revolutionize the production of electronic and biomedical devices!

Researchers at Harvard's Wyss Institute have created a 3D-printing device capable of creating complex metal objects in mid-air. The technology uses a laser-assisted direct ink writing method: a laser heats up silver nanoparticles, which are used as the ink, and solidifies them as they come out of the nozzle.

The new method can print freestanding structures in one go without any auxiliary support materials, thereby allowing the device to create complex architectural designs.


Jennifer Lewis, who led the research team at the Wyss Institute, stated in a media release, “I am truly excited by this latest advance from our lab, which allows one to 3-D print and anneal flexible metal electrodes and complex architectures ‘on-the-fly,”

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The new 3D printing method came with its challenges. Mark Skylar-Scott, researcher and first author of the study, said the most difficult part was finding the correct distance between the nozzle of the printing device and the laser.

“If the laser gets too close to the nozzle during printing, heat is conducted upstream, which clogs the nozzle with solidified ink,” Skylar-Scott stated.

“To address this, we devised a heat transfer model to account for temperature distribution along a given silver-wire pattern, allowing us to modulate the printing speed and distance between the nozzle and laser to elegantly control the laser annealing process ‘on the fly’.”

The new 3D printing method opens vast possibilities in the biomedical and electronic field, with almost limitless design possibilities at a fairly inexpensive cost.

Wyss Institute director, Donald Ingber, believes "This sophisticated use of laser technology to enhance 3-D printing capabilities not only inspires new kinds of products, it moves the frontier of solid free-form fabrication into an exciting new realm, demonstrating once again that previously accepted design limitations can be overcome by innovation."

The study details were published in the journal PNAS.

You can watch some of the interesting designs created by the printing device here:


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