Skip to main content

This 3D printer builds circuits out of silver nanoparticles while floating in midair

3D Printing Metal in Midair
Most 3D printers print layers over and over again until a full object takes shape. But a whole new approach to 3D printing is capable of creating free-form metal objects and designs that emerge suspended in mid-air, thanks to a special kind of silver “ink.” The machine uses a high-intensity laser that heats tiny silver nanoparticles to form metallic shapes. As the nanoparticles are extruded from the nozzle they harden into fully formed 3D objects.

The 3D-printing technique was developed by a team of Harvard researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. For now the team calls the system “laser-assisted direct ink writing” in its research publications, but there’s surely a catchier name on the horizon. The key to unlocking this new approach to printing metal was balancing the intensity of the laser and its proximity to the nozzle. Placing the laser too close to the printer system’s nozzle made the silver nanoparticles harden in the nozzle interior, instead of letting them ooze out to form unique metallic shapes.

Once researchers perfected the distance and timing between the laser and the nanoparticle nozzle, smooth metallic 3D printing was a cinch. The nozzle maps out its programmed path while pushing out the silver nanoparticles, and the laser follows the nozzle’s movement to solidify the particles into filament. The metallic product is incredibly delicate, composed as it is of a filament that is thinner than a single strand of human hair. A steady stream of nanoparticles within the nozzle ensures that the filament will be sturdy, without any breaks or imperfections.

This kind of delicate metal printing is particularly useful because of its freeform capabilities. The filament can be shaped into virtually any type of metal structure, which researchers expect will be useful in developing wearables, sensors, and even circuitry parts. Prototypes made with the silver nanoparticle printer are already demonstrating how useful custom 3D-printed wiring can be on intricate medical devices.

Editors' Recommendations

Chloe Olewitz
Chloe is a writer from New York with a passion for technology, travel, and playing devil's advocate. You can find out more…
The best 3D printers under $500
3D printers are finally affordable. Here are the best models under $500
anycubic photon review 3d printer xxl 2

The 3D printing market has seen quite a few changes over the last few years. In just the span of a decade, the barrier to entry has dropped from well over several thousand dollars to under $200 in some cases. However, all entry and mid-level printers are not made equal. We have a few suggestions for prospective buyers and other information regarding alternatives not found on this list.

To some veterans of the 3D printing scene, this list may seem like it lacks a few of the most commonly recommended printers for newcomers. This is by design. Our list only considers printers with tested components from proven, reliable vendors. That's why we chose the Monoprice MP Mini v2 as our top pick--it's reliable and easy to use. We have avoided any printer with a frame primarily made from interlocking acrylic pieces and anything historically unreliable.
Most bang for your buck: Monoprice MP Mini v2

Read more
Ceramic ink could let doctors 3D print bones directly into a patient’s body
ceramic ink 3d printed bones bioprinting australia 2

Scientists use a novel ink to 3D print ‘bone’ with living cells

The term 3D bioprinting refers to the use of 3D printing technology to fabricate biomedical parts that, eventually, could be used to create replacement organs or other body parts as required. While we’re not at that point just yet, a number of big advances have been made toward this dream over the past couple of decades.

Read more
The future of making stuff: Inside the evolution of 3D printing with Formlabs
future of 3d printing formlabs ces 2021 castablewax40

When 3D printing went mainstream in the mid-2010s and exploded in popularity, it was about as hyped up as it possibly could be. Evangelists told us it would fundamentally transform the way goods were made, and usher in a bold new era of creative freedom. Soon, they said, we’d be able to fabricate anything we wanted on-demand, Star Trek replicator style, right from the comfort of our own homes.

But of course, 3D printing didn't really live up to that high-flying dream. Instead, it made a momentary splash and then largely returned to the fringes, gaining adoption in hobbyist workshops and cutting-edge product design labs, but not really changing the face of manufacturing in the way many hoped it might.

Read more