Progress in 3D printing electronics will depend on the availability of functional material inks and the nozzles to handle them.
Printable RFID tags and other flexible electronics have been in the market for some time. But 3D printing offers advantages for those components that need thicker structures and until now, batteries have required large areas.
This week we saw the announcement that researchers, led by Jennifer Lewis at Harvard, have developed a variety of functional inks for 3D printing electronics components and the necessary nozzles to handle them.
3D printing is not only getting cheaper, it’s becoming more diverse. The range of materials you can print with is expanding, and therefore the range of objects you can print is also growing.
Jennifer Lewis is a materials scientist working out of Harvard. What she has done is to formulate new inks and create special nozzles and extruders for 3D printing batteries and other simple electronic components. These so-called functional inks contain nanoparticles of different compounds, for example, lithium for batteries and silver for wires. They get printed at room temperature as a liquid, but become a solid after printing.
In addition to the 3D printing ink, the Lewis team has also developed arrays of nozzles to allow for multiple materials for different layers or structural elements at room temperature. Printing accuracy is 100 nm.
Using industrial 3D printers, modified to extrude the ink suspensions, lithium ion batteries as small as 1 mm square have been made that function like commercial batteries. While the structure of the battery is not novel, the production method is disruptive.
Structures such as antennas were also mentioned.
Patents for materials and nozzle designs have been filed and the technology is now being licensed.
Sadly, a home use model will not be available for this holiday season. But if it were, what would you start building?