3-d printing electronics-large

[Image above] Credit: University of Minnesota, College of Science and Engineering, YouTube

It seems like there’s nothing that cannot be 3-D printed today.

Scientists and engineers are stretching the boundaries of 3-D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing. Researchers have put all kinds of materials through a 3-D printer, including concreteceramicsbioceramics, and ceramic foams.

We’ve even seen chocolate run through a 3-D printer.

Researchers are also printing electronic circuits with a 3-D printer.

But now, researchers have taken 3-D printed electronics a step further. Using an inexpensive 3-D printer, a research team from the University of Minnesota has printed an electronic circuit on the top of a human hand.

Led by University of Minnesota Benjamin Mayhugh Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Michael McAlpine, the researchers also used the printer to print biological cells on to a surface wound of a mouse.

“We are excited about the potential of this new 3D-printing technology using a portable, lightweight printer costing less than $400,” McAlpine says in a University of Minnesota news release.

Even when a person sits completely still, the hand can still move slightly, McAlpine says, which can distort results. McAlpine and his team solved this using temporary markers on the skin and computer vision to make adjustments in real time. “This printer can track the hand using the markers and adjust in real-time to the movements and contours of the hand, so printing of the electronics keeps its circuit shape,” he explains in the release.

The team’s 3-D printing process uses ink containing silver flakes that cure and conduct at room temperature, as opposed to conventional inks that need high temperatures of up to 100oC (212oF)—which would ultimately burn a person’s skin. The final product is easily removed with tweezers or water.

The researchers envision several applications for the technology, especially for the military in charging electronics while in the battlefield.

“We imagine that a soldier could pull this printer out of a backpack and print a chemical sensor or other electronics they need, directly on the skin,” McAlpine says. “It would be like a ‘Swiss Army knife’ of the future with everything they need all in one portable 3-D printing tool.”

The researchers also propose that the technology could be used in the medical field for treating wounds and skin diseases as well as constructing skin grafts.

“I’m fascinated by the idea of printing electronics or cells directly on the skin,” McAlpine adds excitedly. “It is such a simple idea and has unlimited potential for important applications in the future.”

The paper, published in Advanced Materials is “3D Printed Functional and Biological Materials on Moving Freeform Surfaces” (DOI: 10.1002/adma.201707495).

Watch the video below to see how the 3-D printer works on human skin.

Credit: University of Minnesota, College of Science and Engineering

And watch this video of McAlpine, who discusses the technology.

Credit: University of Minnesota, College of Science and Engineering

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