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3D Printing with Water: Berkeley Scientists Print All-Liquid 3D Structures

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Scientists from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have invented a novel method of 3D printing liquid structures. The process enables injection of water threads into a surfactant and locks it in place while the 3D printer sculpts liquid tube. The scientists believe this new technique could be used to build liquid electronics, and delivering nanoscale building blocks to under-water construction.

The scientists have tried printing threads of water. They have successfully printed threads in a variety of shapes and sizes as big as a few metres in length. The interesting part is that the material can repeatedly change its shape.

According to visiting faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division, Tom Russell, “It’s a new class of material that can reconfigure itself, and it has the potential to be customized into liquid reaction vessels for many uses, from chemical synthesis to ion transport to catalysis,”

Nanoparticle Supersoap

Nanoparticle Supersoap keeps the structure in place

Above: Schematic representation of the water printing process in oil. Gold nanoparticles in water combine with polymer ligands in oil to form a Nanoparticle Supersoap which keeps the structure in place/Image Credit: Berkeley Lab

The scientists developed a way to cover the water tubes in a surfactant derived from nanoparticle. This surfactant locks the water in its place. This way the water is prevented from disintegrating into droplets. The surfactant is essentially a soap and scientists call it nanoparticle supersoap.

The nanoparticle supersoap was created through a unique process. A process which involved dispersing gold nanoparticles in water and polymer ligands in oil. What makes the surfactant so good is that both, the gold nanoparticles and polymer ligands want to join together but they also want to remain in their respective water and oil mediums. When the water is injected in the oil, the polymer ligands try to attach to the gold nanoparticles in the water forming the nanoparticle supersoap. This supersoap locks the water like a vitrified glass and the interface is stabilised thereby keeping the structure from collapsing.

Tom Russell explains, “This stability means we can stretch water into a tube, and it remains a tube. Or we can shape water into an ellipsoid, and it remains an ellipsoid. He added, “We’ve used these nanoparticle supersoaps to print tubes of water that last for several months.”

The team first learned how to create liquid tubes inside other liquid and then it was time to automate the process. Joe Froth modified a 3D printer to suit their research purpose. He changed the extrusion assembly to fit the syringe pump and needle system to inject liquid. The next step was to program the printer to insert the needle into the surfactant and inject water in the required pattern.

Joe Froth explains, “We can squeeze liquid from a needle, and place threads of water anywhere we want in three dimensions.”

He added, “We can also ping the material with an external force, which momentarily breaks the supersoap’s stability and changes the shape of the water threads. The structures are endlessly reconfigurable.”

Tom Russel along with Joe Forth, a post-doctoral researcher from Berkeley Lab and several other scientists from other institutions collaborated to develop the material. Their paper titled ‘Reconfigurable Printed Liquids’ was published in journal of Advanced Materials. This research was funded by Department of Energy’s Office of Science.


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