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3-D printing of liquid metals

A 3-D-printed structure created out of liquid metal drops

This 3-D structure was created out of liquid metal drops. The liquid metal, a eutectic alloy of gallium and indium, is similar to water but it can be patterned into 3-D shapes due to a thin, solid, oxide skin that forms on its surface. Researchers at North Carolina State University developed the 3-D printing technology and techniques, which can create free-standing structures made of liquid metal at room temperature. This structure was created using a technique that involves stacking the liquid metal droplets on top of each other, much like a stack of oranges at the supermarket. The droplets adhere to one another but retain their shape, and do not merge into a single, larger droplet.

Michael Dickey, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the work, says its difficult to create structures out of liquids because liquids want to bead up. But the gallium and indium liquid metal alloy reacts to the oxygen in the air at room temperature to form a "skin" that allows the liquid metal structures to retain their shapes.

Dickey acknowledged important work by Collin Ladd, an undergraduate working in his lab "who was indispensable to the project." "He helped develop the concept, and literally created some of this technology out of spare parts he found himself," said Dickey. Ladd was supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experiences for Undergraduates supplement to Dickey's Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award (CMMI 09-54321) and was partially supported by NSF's ASSIST ERC at NC State (EEC 11-60483). Ladd is lead author of a paper describing this work that was published online in Advanced Materials (see 3-D Printing of Free Standing Liquid Metal Microstructures).

Dickeys team is currently exploring how to further develop this technique and others created in his lab, as well as how to use them in various electronics applications and in conjunction with established 3-D printing technologies.

To read more about this research, see the NC State news story Researchers Build 3-D Structures Out of Liquid Metal. To view the printing technique in action, see the YouTube video 3-D Printing of Liquid Metals at Room Temperature. (Date of Image: 2012)


Credit: Collin Ladd, North Carolina State University

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