3-D Printing with Liquid Metals

by Collin Ladd and Michael Dickey

Our research group at North Carolina State University has been studying new ways to use simple processes to print liquid metals into 3-D shapes at room temperature. 3-D printing is gaining popularity because of the ability to quickly go from concept to reality to design, replicate, or create objects. For example, it is now possible to draw an object on a computer or scan a physical object into software and have a highly detailed replica within a few hours.

3-D printing with liquid metals: a line of dollsMost 3-D printers currently pattern plastics, but printing metal objects is of particular interest because of metal’s physical strength and electrical conductivity. Because of the difficulty involved with metal printing, it is considered one of the “frontiers” of 3-D printing.
There are several approaches for 3-D printing of metals, but they all have limitations, including high temperatures (making it harder to co-print with other materials) and prohibitively expensive equipment. The most popular approach to printing metals is to use lasers or electron beams to sinter fine metal powders together at elevated temperatures, one layer at a time, to form solid metal parts.

Our approach uses a simple method to enable direct printing of liquid metals at room temperature. We print liquid metal alloys primarily composed of gallium. These alloys have metallic conductivity and a viscosity similar to water. Unlike mercury, gallium is not considered toxic nor does it evaporate. We extrude this metal from a nozzle to create droplets that can be stacked to form 3-D structures. Normally, two droplets of liquid (e.g., water) merge together into a single drop if stacked on each other. However, these metal droplets do not succumb to surface-tension effects because the metal rapidly forms a solid oxide “skin” on its surface that mechanically stabilizes the printed structures. This skin also makes it possible to extrude wires or metal fibers.

This printing process is important for two reasons. First, it enables the printing of metallic structures at room temperature using a process that is compatible with other printed materials (e.g., plastics). Second, it results in metal structures that can be used for flexible and stretchable electronics.

 

Stretchable electronics are motivated by the new applications that emerge by building electronic functionality on deformable substrates. It may enable new wearable sensors and textiles that deform naturally with the human body, or even an elastic array of embedded sensors that could serve as a substitute for skin on a prosthetic or robot-controlled fingertip. Unlike the bendable polyimide-based circuits commonly seen on a ribbon cable or inside a digital camera, stretchable electronics require more mechanical robustness, which may involve the ability to deform like a rubber band. However, a stretchable device need not be 100% elastic. Solid components embedded in a substrate (e.g., silicone) can be incorporated into a stretchable device if the connections between them can adequately deform.

Using our approach, we can direct print freestanding wire bonds or circuit traces to directly connect components—without etching or solder—at room temperature. Encasing these structures in polymer enables these interconnects to be stretched tenfold without losing electrical conductivity. Liquid metal wires also have been shown to be self-healing, even after being completely severed. Our group has demonstrated several applications of the liquid metal in soft, stretchable components including deformable antennas, soft-memory devices, ultra-stretchable wires, and soft optical components.

Although our approach is promising, there are some notable limitations. Gallium alloys are expensive and the price is expected to rise due to gallium’s expanding industrial use. Nevertheless, it is possible to print microscale structures without using much volume, which helps keep the cost down per component. Liquid metal structures must also be encased in a polymer substrate because they are not strong enough to stand by themselves for rugged applications.

Our current work is focused on optimizing this process and exploring new material possibilities for 3-D printing. We hope advancements will enable users to print new embedded electronic components that were previously challenging or impossible to construct using a 3-D printer.

Collin Ladd (claddc4@gmail.com)  is pursuing a career in medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC. Since 2009, he has been the primary researcher for the 3-D printed liquid metals project at The Dickey Group, which is headed by Michael Dickey. Collin’s interests include circuit board design and robotics. He has been an avid electronics hobbyist since high school.

Collin Ladd (claddc4@gmail.com) is pursuing a career in medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC. Since 2009, he has been the primary researcher for the 3-D printed liquid metals project at The Dickey Group, which is headed by Michael Dickey. Collin’s interests include circuit board design and robotics. He has been an avid electronics hobbyist since high school.

Michael Dickey (mddickey@ncsu.edu) is an associate professor at the North Carolina State University Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. His research includes studying soft materials, thin films and interfaces, and unconventional nanofabrication techniques. His research group’s projects include stretchable electronics, patterning gels, and self-folding sheets.

Michael Dickey (mddickey@ncsu.edu) is an associate professor at the North Carolina State University Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. His research includes studying soft materials, thin films and interfaces, and unconventional nanofabrication techniques. His research group’s projects include stretchable electronics, patterning gels, and self-folding sheets.

 

 

 

Q&A: Jeremy Blum, Electrical Engineer, Entrepreneur, Author

Jeremy Blum

Jeremy Blum

Jeremy Blum, 23, has always been a self-proclaimed tinkerer. From Legos to 3-D printers, he has enjoyed learning about engineering both in and out of the classroom. A recent Cornell University College of Engineering graduate, Jeremy has written a book, started his own company, and traveled far to teach children about engineering and sustainable design. Jeremy, who lives in San Francisco, CA, is now working on Google’s Project Glass.—Nan Price, Associate Editor

NAN: When did you start working with electronics?

JEREMY: I’ve been tinkering, in some form or another, ever since I figured out how to use my opposable thumbs. Admittedly, it wasn’t electronics from the offset. As with most engineers, I started with Legos. I quickly progressed to woodworking and I constructed several pieces of furniture over the course of a few years. It was only around the start of my high school career that I realized the extent to which I could express my creativity with electronics and software. I thrust myself into the (expensive) hobby of computer building and even built an online community around it. I financed my hobby through my two companies, which offered computer repair services and video production services. After working exclusively with computer hardware for a few years, I began to dive deeper into analog circuits, robotics, microcontrollers, and more.

NAN: Tell us about some of your early, pre-college projects.

JEREMY: My most complex early project was the novel prosthetic hand I developed in high school. The project was a finalist in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search. I also did a variety of robotics and custom-computer builds. The summer before starting college, my friends and I built a robot capable of playing “Guitar Hero” with nearly 100% accuracy. That was my first foray into circuit board design and parallel programming. My most ridiculous computer project was a mineral oil-cooled computer. We submerged an entire computer in a fish tank filled with mineral oil (it was actually a lot of baby oil, but they are basically the same thing).

DeepNote Guitar Hero Robot

DeepNote Guitar Hero Robot

Mineral Oil-Cooled Computer

Mineral Oil-Cooled Computer

NAN: You’re a recent Cornell University College of Engineering graduate. While you were there, you co-founded Cornell’s PopShop. Tell us about the workspace. Can you describe some PopShop projects?

Cornell University's PopShop

Cornell University’s PopShop

JEREMY: I recently received my Master’s degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Cornell University, where I previously received my BS in the same field. During my time at Cornell, my peers and I took it upon ourselves to completely retool the entrepreneurial climate at Cornell. The PopShop, a co-working space that we formed a few steps off Cornell’s main campus, was our primary means of doing this. We wanted to create a collaborative space where students could come to explore their own ideas, learn what other entrepreneurial students were working on, and get involved themselves.

The PopShop is open to all Cornell students. I frequently hosted events there designed to get more students inspired about pursuing their own ideas. Common occurrences included peer office hours, hack-a-thons, speed networking sessions, 3-D printing workshops, and guest talks from seasoned venture capitalists.

Student startups that work (or have worked) out of the PopShop co-working space include clothing companies, financing companies, hardware startups, and more. Some specific companies include Rosie, SPLAT, LibeTech (mine), SUNN (also mine), Bora Wear, Yorango, Party Headphones, and CoVenture.

NAN: Give us a little background information about Cornell University Sustainable Design (CUSD). Why did you start the group? What types of CUSD projects were you involved with?

CUSD11JEREMY: When I first arrived at Cornell my freshman year, I knew right away that I wanted to join a research lab, and that I wanted to join a project team (knowing that I learn best in hands-on environments instead of in the classroom). I joined the Cornell Solar Decathlon Team, a very large group of mostly engineers and architects who were building a solar-powered home to enter in the biannual solar decathlon competition orchestrated by the Department of Energy.

By the end of my freshman year, I was the youngest team leader in the organization.  After competing in the 2009 decathlon, I took over as chief director of the team and worked with my peers to re-form the organization into Cornell University Sustainable Design (CUSD), with the goal of building a more interdisciplinary team, with far-reaching impacts.

CUSD3

Under my leadership, CUSD built a passive schoolhouse in South Africa (which has received numerous international awards), constructed a sustainable community in Nicaragua, has been the only student group tasked with consulting on sustainable design constraints for Cornell’s new Tech Campus in New York City, partnered with nonprofits to build affordable homes in upstate New York, has taught workshops in museums and school, contributed to the design of new sustainable buildings on Cornell’s Ithaca campus, and led a cross-country bus tour to teach engineering and sustainability concepts at K–12 schools across America. The group is now comprised of students from more than 25 different majors with dozens of advisors and several simultaneous projects. The new team leaders are making it better every day. My current startup, SUNN, spun out of an EPA grant that CUSD won.

CUSD7NAN: You spent two years working at MakerBot Industries, where you designed electronics for a 3-D printer and a 3-D scanner. Any highlights from working on those projects?

JEREMY: I had a tremendous opportunity to learn and grow while at MakerBot. When I joined, I was one of about two dozen total employees. Though I switched back and forth between consulting and full-time/part-time roles while class was in session, by the time I stopped working with MakerBot (in January 2013), the company had grown to more than 200 people. It was very exciting to be a part of that.

I designed all of the electronics for the original MakerBot Replicator. This constituted a complete redesign from the previous electronics that had been used on the second generation MakerBot 3-D printer. The knowledge I gained from doing this (e.g., PCB design, part sourcing, DFM, etc.) drastically outweighed much of what I had learned in school up to that point. I can’t say much about the 3-D scanner (the MakerBot Digitizer), as it has been announced, but not released (yet).

The last project I worked on before leaving MakerBot was designing the first working prototype of the Digitizer electronics and firmware. These components comprised the demo that was unveiled at SXSW this past April. This was a great opportunity to apply lessons learned from working on the Replicator electronics and find ways in which my personal design process and testing techniques could be improved. I frequently use my MakerBot printers to produce custom mechanical enclosures that complement the open-source electronics projects I’ve released.

NAN: Tell us about your company, Blum Idea Labs. What types of projects are you working on?

JEREMY: Blum Idea Labs is the entity I use to brand all my content and consulting services. I primarily use it as an outlet to facilitate working with educational organizations. For example, the St. Louis Hacker Scouts, the African TAHMO Sensor Workshop, and several other international organizations use a “Blum Idea Labs Arduino curriculum.” Most of my open-source projects, including my tutorials, are licensed via Blum Idea Labs. You can find all of them on my blog (www.jeremyblum.com/blog). I occasionally offer private design consulting through Blum Idea Labs, though I obviously can’t discuss work I do for clients.

NAN: Tell us about the blog you write for element14.

JEREMY: I generally use my personal blog to write about projects that I’ve personally been working on.  However, when I want to talk about more general engineering topics (e.g., sustainability, engineering education, etc.), I post them on my element14 blog. I have a great working relationship with element14. It has sponsored the production of all my Arduino Tutorials and also provided complete parts kits for my book. We cross-promote each-other’s content in a mutually beneficial fashion that also ensures that the community gets better access to useful engineering content.

NAN: You recently wrote Exploring Arduino: Tools and Techniques for Engineering Wizardry. Do you consider this book introductory or is it written for the more experienced engineer?

JEREMY: As with all the video and written content that I produce on my website and on YouTube, I tried really hard to make this book useful and accessible to both engineering veterans and newbies. The book builds on itself and provides tons of optional excerpts that dive into greater technical detail for those who truly want to grasp the physics and programming concepts behind what I teach in the book. I’ve already had readers ranging from teenagers to senior citizens comment on the applicability of the book to their varying degrees of expertise. The Amazon reviews tell a similar story. I supplemented the book with a lot of free digital content including videos, part descriptions, and open-source code on the book website.

NAN: What can readers expect to learn from the book?

JEREMY: I wrote the book to serve as an engineering introduction and as an idea toolbox for those wanting to dive into concepts in electrical engineering, computer science, and human-computer interaction design. Though Exploring Arduino uses the Arduino as a platform to experiment with these concepts, readers can expect to come away from the book with new skills that can be applied to a variety of platforms, projects, and ideas. This is not a recipe book. The projects readers will undertake throughout the book are designed to teach important concepts in addition to traditional programming syntax and engineering theories.

NAN: I see you’ve spent some time introducing engineering concepts to children and teaching them about sustainable engineering and renewable energy. Tell us about those experiences. Any highlights?

JEREMY: The way I see it, there are two ways in which engineers can make the world a better place: they can design new products and technologies that solve global problems or they can teach others the skills they need to assist in the development of solutions to global problems. I try hard to do both, though the latter enables me to have a greater impact, because I am able to multiply my impact by the number of students I teach. I’ve taught workshops, written curriculums, produced videos, written books, and corresponded directly with thousands of students all around the world with the goal of transferring sufficient knowledge for these students to go out and make a difference.

Here are some highlights from my teaching work:

bluestamp

I taught BlueStamp Engineering, a summer program for high school students in NYC in the summer of 2012. I also guest-lectured at the program in 2011 and 2013.

I co-organized a cross-country bus tour where we taught sustainability concepts to school children across the country.

indiaI was invited to speak at Techkriti 2013 in Kanpur, India. I had the opportunity to meet many students from IIT Kanpur who already followed my videos and used my tutorials to build their own projects.

Blum Idea Labs partnered with the St. Louis Hacker Scouts to construct a curriculum for teaching electronics to the students. Though I wasn’t there in person, I did welcome them all to the program with a personalized video.

brooklyn_childrens_zoneThrough CUSD, I organized multiple visits to the Brooklyn Children’s Zone, where my team and I taught students about sustainable architecture and engineering.

Again with CUSD, we visited the Intrepid museum to teach sustainable energy concepts using potato batteries.

intrepid

NAN: Speaking of promoting engineering to children, what types of technologies do you think will be important in the near future?

JEREMY: I think technologies that make invention more widely accessible are going to be extremely important in the coming years. Cheaper tools, prototyping platforms such as the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi, 3-D printers, laser cutters, and open developer platforms (e.g., Android) are making it easier than ever for any person to become an inventor or an engineer.  Every year, I see younger and younger students learning to use these technologies, which makes me very optimistic about the things we’ll be able to do as a society.

Multi-Tasking Robot Platform

Fisnar F9960N

Fisnar F9960N

The F9960N multitasking robot is designed to dispense applications including miniature SMT circuit boards, large PCBs, and finished assemblies. The robot’s dispensing and coating system can be integrated within a conveyor-dependent inline manufacturing environment or installed as a stand-alone module.

The enclosed environment provides access for fume extraction systems, which creates a safeguard from potentially hazardous substances. Access to the working area is through a security door, which is locked while in operation but accessible during programming.

The robot includes a 178-mm touchscreen display that enables you to program a dispense path with unique characteristics (e.g., continuous path and point-to-point routing).

Contact Fisnar for pricing.

Fisnar, Inc.
www.fisnar.com

Low-Cost, High-Performance 32-bit Microcontrollers

The PIC32MX3/4 32-bit microcontrollers are available in 64/16-, 256/64-, and 512/128-KB flash/RAM configurations. The microcontrollers are coupled with Microchip Technology’s software and tools for designs in connectivity, graphics, digital audio, and general-purpose embedded control.

The microcontrollers offer high RAM memory options and high peripheral integration at a low cost. They feature 28 10-bit ADCs, five UARTS, 105-DMIPS performance, serial peripherals, a graphic display, capacitive touch, connectivity, and digital audio support.
The PIC32MX3/4 microcontrollers are supported with general software development tools, including Microchip Technology’s MPLAB X integrated development environment (IDE) and the MPLAB XC32 C/C++ compiler.

Application-specific tools include the Microchip Graphics Display Designer X and the Microchip Graphics Library, which provide a visual design tool that enables quick and easy creation of graphical user interface (GUI) screens for applications. The microcontrollers are also supported with a set of Microchip’s protocol stacks including TCP/IP, USB Device and Host, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. For digital audio applications, Microchip provides software for tasks such as sample rate conversion (SRC), audio codecs—including MP3 and Advanced Audio Coding (AAC), and software to connect smartphones and other personal electronic devices.

The PIC32MX3/4 family is supported by Microchip’s PIC32 USB Starter Kit III, which costs $59.99 and the PIC32MX450 100-pin USB plug-in module, which costs $25 for the modular Explorer 16 development system. Pricing for the PIC32MX3/4 microcontrollers starts at $2.50 each in 10,000-unit quantities.

Microchip Technology, Inc.
www.microchip.com

Industrial Double-Break Switch for IP67/68

The MP220 is an industrial high-current switch. It features a single-pole, double-break electrical circuit that enables it to double break two independent electrical circuits.

The MP220 switch utilizes a fast snap action mechanism to transition from break-to-make position. The switch in its standard version is currently IP67 sealed. An improved sealing for IP68 applications with a strengthened cable exit is also available.

The MP220 is available in standard microswitch-size housing with a range of possible actuators and a four-wire potted cable. The switch is EN61058-certified for 250 VAC/10 A with a –40°C-to-130°C operating temperature range.

Contact Microprecision for pricing.

Microprecision Electronics SA
www.microprecision.ch