For material engineers, nanostructures happen to be the next big thing, considered somewhat of Holy Grail status. Made up of nanoscale level synthesized materials, nanostructures have various optical, energy and mechanical qualities that could potentially transform how a host of industries function. However, getting these materials to a desired scale to a point where they can be worked with has proved very challenging for scientists and researchers. In almost every instance of the countless trials conducted, the structural performance, integrity and uniformity of the material had to be sacrificed or diminished. This pretty much destroyed the whole purpose of scaling up the nanostructures as it destroyed the desirability of the material. However, rapid prototyping and 3D printing can prove to be an effective solution. Virginia Tech researchers have recently revealed a revolutionary new method that can effectively scale up materials of the nanostructures with 3D printers.
Xiaoyu Zheng, assistant professor of mechanical engineering department at Virginia Tech led the research team that deserves credit for this scientific breakthrough. The findings of the team was shared in a paper titled ‘Multiscale Metallic Metaminerals’, published in the journal of Nature Materials. Two graduate research students of Virginia Tech Da Chen and Huachen Cui along with various partners from LLNL (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) are also included in the research team. The SCHEV state fund from Virginia State, the Defense Advance Research Projects agency and LLNL aided the conduction of the study with their support. According to the team, they have devised a new way for creating nanostructures made out of metal which happen to be highly elastic, lightweight and strong. With the help of this rapid prototyping method, the nanostructures can be scaled up significantly up to an entire seven orders of control of magnitude. Hence the structures reach magnification up to multiple centimeters.
The most astonishing characteristic of this new rapid prototyping revolution perhaps is the remarkable level of elasticity that the structures achieve. The nanostructures are made up of nanoscale hollow tubes and hierarchical architectural arrangements in 3D. These multiscale metallic materials can exhibit four hundred percent more elasticity than usual lightweight ceramic foams or metals. However, these hierarchical, multi leveled structures also boast a surface area that is optimal of nanomaterials. This surface area not only increases electrical and optical properties, it also allows photon energy to be collected anywhere. In other words, photons can be collected from not just the top of the surface like a photovoltaic cell; it can be collected from inside the 3D lattice structure as well.
This amazing quality of the nanostructures can usher the way for various applications across the scientific community and later on, in our everyday lives. These should help researchers, among other things; replicate a wider range of naturally occurring materials than ever done before. Bone structures, for example, are made up of more than one layers of 3D architectures starting from the very nanoscale to the macroscale. Till now, researchers have been unable to fully duplicate or control any of these complex structures. However, many fields that requires materials which are very flexible and lightweight can immensely benefit from this invention. Many high tech industries and sectors require lightweight materials such as automotive and aerospace; as well as military and medical industries.
The working principle of the nanostructures has been explained by the research time in their paper. The rapid prototyping of hierarchical lattice structures with features in nanoscale are produced. These structures are carefully mirrored at each and every scale in a single object. To accomplish this, the technique used is a digital light 3D printing is employed to overcome the problems between build volume and high resolution. According to the researchers, creating these materials was accomplished with the help of a large area, high resolution rapid prototyping technique. The scalability it gave was not achievable by traditional stereolithography or by two-photon polymerization techniques.
According to research student Zheng the ability to get these structures 3D printed on such a wide range of magnitudes from nanoscale to a few centimeters is a breakthrough in the scene. It is an unprecedented achievement that 3D hierarchical micro features were created in the whole seven orders of magnitude of the product’s structural bandwidth. He further explained that getting the nanoscale features assembled into materials through 3D architectures of multiple levels, the team began to perceive a wide range of mechanical programmed properties. These included maximum strength, minimal weight and great elasticity at the scale of centimeters.
This new groundbreaking technology has amazing potential for producing inorganic materials of multiple functions such as ceramics and metals. These, if prepared through this rapid prototyping technology can then withstand harsher climates by dint of their increased flexibility and elasticity. According to a hopeful Zheng, the face of material engineering might change for the better in near future. One thing is for sure, there’s no stopping progress!
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