Microscopic Metal 3D Printing With Gels

Everyone wants to 3D print with metals, but it is a difficult task. You need high temperatures and metals with high thermal conductivity make the problem even worse. Researchers at Caltech have a way of printing tiny metal structures. The trick? They don’t print metals at all. Instead, they 3D print a hydrogel and then use it as a scaffold to form metallic structures. You can read the full paper, if you are interested in the details.

Hydrogels are insoluble in water and made from flexible polymer chains. If you’ve ever handled a soft contact lens, that’s a hydrogel. Like resin printing, UV light triggers chemical reactions in the hydrogels, causing them to harden in the desired pattern.

What about the metal? They infuse the hydrogel with a metallic salt dissolved in water.  This saturates the hydrogel. Burning in a furnace causes the hydrogel to burn away but leaves the metal. The furnace also causes the structure to shrink, so this is a good method for very tiny pieces. The team has made prints with feature sizes around 40 microns.

By altering the metal salts, you can work with different metals or even mix different metals. The team has produced parts using copper, nickel, silver, and several alloys.

Printing small structures is a big research goal with many different approaches. We’ve even seen a tiny welder.

3D Printed Heat Exchanger Uses Gyroid Infill For Cooling

3D printing allows the physical manufacturing of some unique geometries that are simply not possible with other processes. If you design around these strengths, it is possible to create parts that significantly outperform more conventional alternatives. With this in mind [Advanced Engineering Solutions] created a metal 3D printed heat exchanger that is half the size and four times the efficiency of the one it was designed to replace. Video after the break.

Gyroid infill splits an internal volume in two, perfect for heat exchangers.

Made from an aluminum alloy using a Laser Powder Bed Fusion (LPBF) machine, the heat exchanger is intended to cool transmission oil on military helicopters by using fuel as the coolant. Looking somewhat similar to a Fabergé egg, it uses gyroid “infill” for the actual heat exchange part. An interesting characteristic of gyroids is that it creates two separate intermeshed volumes, making them perfect for this application.

It was printed in one piece, without any removable support, just an internal lattice that supports the gyroids at the inlet and outlets. The only post-processing required was threading and surface cleanup on the ports. Since metal 3D printing is still too expensive to really allow many iterative prints, a significant amount of design and simulation time was put in before the first print.

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3D Printing A Check Valve In Metal

[SunShine] has been working on 3D printed pumps and similar parts with an aim towards building smaller and more compact hydraulic systems. His latest effort involves printing working hydraulic check valves that can be integrated seamlessly into his designs. 

Unlike many 3D printing enthusiasts, [SunShine] works with metal printers of the laser powder bed type. His expectations for his parts are thus very high, and he aimed to create check valves that could withstand high hydraulic pressures.

After much work, [SunShine] came up with two designs for 3D-printed check valves that would work. However, they both needed internal removal of support structures that couldn’t be achieved without cutting them open. He then figured out that he could use a special process using nitric acid to carefully eat away a very precise amount of metal inside the valves, which would remove the support material without destroying the whole valve itself.

While the valves couldn’t be tested beyond 400 bar due to the available equipment, they did work as intended. As a bonus, they actually sealed better as they were used more, as the sealing surfaces bedded in and deformed to match each other.

The video is then rounded out with a simple plastic check valve design you can print at home. It reminds us of other valves we’ve seen created with 3D printing before. Video after the break.

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Hackaday Links: April 10, 2022

A funny thing happened on the way to the delta. The one on Jezero crater on Mars, that is, as the Perseverance rover may have captured a glimpse of the parachute that helped deliver it to the Red Planet a little over a year ago. Getting the rover safely onto the Martian surface was an incredibly complex undertaking, made all the more impressive by the fact that it was completely autonomous. The parachute, which slowed the descent vehicle holding the rover, was jettisoned well before the “Sky Crane” deployed to lower the rover to the surface. The parachute wafted to the surface a bit over a kilometer from the landing zone. NASA hasn’t confirmed that what’s seen in the raw images is the chute; in fact, they haven’t even acknowledged the big white thing that’s obviously not a rock in the picture at all. Perhaps they’re reserving final judgment until they get an overflight by the Ingenuity helicopter, which is currently landed not too far from where the descent stage crashed. We’d love to see pictures of that wreckage.

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3D Printing Tiny Metal Parts

It may sound like a pop band, but μ-WAAM is actually a 3D printing technique for making small metal parts from the NOVA University Lisbon. Of course, WAAM stands for wire arc additive manufacturing, a well-known technique for 3D printing in metal. The difference? The new technique uses 250 μm wire stock instead of the 1mm or thicker wires used in conventional WAAM.

The thinner feed wire allows μ-WAAM to create fine details like thin walls that would be difficult to replicate with traditional methods. Typically, for fine structures, printers use fused metal powder. This is good for fine details, but typically slower and has higher waste than wire-based systems.

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Defective 3D Printing For Great Strength

Most of us want our 3D prints to be perfect. But at Cornell University, they’ve been experimenting with deliberately introducing defects into printed titanium. Why? Because using a post-print treatment of heat and pressure they can turn those defects into assets, leading to a stronger and more ductile printed part.

The most common ways to print metal use powders melted together, and these lead to tiny pores in the material that weaken the final product. Using Ti-6Al-4V, the researchers deliberately made a poor print that had more than the usual amount of defects. Then they applied extreme heat and pressure to the resulting piece. The pressure caused the pores to close up, and changed the material’s internal structure to be more like a composite.

Reports are that the pieces treated in this way have superior properties to parts made by casting and forging, much less 3D printed parts. In addition, the printing process usually creates parts that are stronger in some directions than others. The post processing breaks that directionality and the finished parts have equal strength in all directions.

The hot isostatic pressing (HIP) process isn’t new — it is commonly used in metal and ceramic processing — so this method shouldn’t require anything more exotic than that. Granted, even cheap presses from China start around $7,000 and go way up from there, but if you are 3D printing titanium, that might not be such a big expenditure. The only downside seems to be that if the process leaves any defects partially processed, it can lead to fatigue failures later.

We wonder if this development will impact all the car parts being printed in titanium lately. If you need something to print in titanium, consider hacking your rib cage.

3D Printing Copper

People really want to 3D print metal, but while true metal printers exist, they still are expensive and out of reach of most hackers. However, even if you can afford an exotic printer or use metal-impregnated polymer, you don’t often see copper as a print material. Copper has high electrical and thermal conductivity which makes it very useful. But that thermal conductivity also makes it very difficult to print using any process that involves heating up the material and copper reflects common lasers used in the 3D printing process. However, a German company, Infinite Flex, is claiming a breakthrough that will allow printers that use a standard IR laser to produce copper parts. The material, Infinite Powder CU 01 is suitable for selective laser sintering and several other laser-based techniques.

The powder has 99.5% copper and particle sizes of between 10 and 45 microns. There are some copper alloys that reduce thermal conductivity to allow printing, but often the reason you want a copper part is for its thermal properties. A kilogram of the powder will set you back nearly $100, so it isn’t dirt cheap, but it isn’t astronomical, either.

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