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The birth of new metal 3D printing technology


According to news on October 31, Dutch researchers at the University of Twente have developed a new metal 3D printing technology that allows laser equipment to print metal structures, including pure gold, drop by drop, with a printing accuracy of several microns.

Generally, metal structures can be manufactured by photolithography, casting, selective laser sintering or melting. However, these new methods are not yet suitable for 3D printing of metals with feature sizes less than about 10 μm, which will be very interesting for electronic devices.

The birth of new metal 3D printing technology

The researchers’ new technology is called laser-induced forward transmission (also known as "LIFT"), which uses ultra-short laser pulses to melt tiny metals in nano-thick films. This forms droplets of molten metal, which can be sprayed to the target location and solidified. Thanks to this technique, UT researchers were able to build a spiral microstructure with copper and gold droplets drop by drop. The two metals have similar melting points. In this case, copper serves as a support and gold can form on it.

Laser printing technology: by printing copper and gold sequentially, the copper is etched away to produce an independent spiral of pure gold

The volume of metal droplets is only a few soars (parts per trillion). The way to make the droplets is to irradiate the metal with an ultra-short pulse of green laser light. This precise droplet generation allows the structure to be carefully constructed, with a height of only a few tens of microns, with details less than 10μm, and minimal surface roughness (approximately 0.3 to 0.7 microns). For researchers, a key question is whether the two metals will mix at their interface: this will have an impact on the quality of the product after etching. The researchers wrote in additive manufacturing that there is no sign of mixing between these metals.

Once the structure was completed, the researchers used chemical etching in ferric chloride to completely remove the copper stent. By doing so, they left a separate spiral composite of pure gold.

The ability to create completely independent and overhanging structures is essential for printing complex 3D devices. The use of LIFT in combination with chemical etching can show the possibility of generating these types of structures on a small scale.

LIFT technology is also a promising technology for other metals and metal combinations. Researchers expect opportunities for materials used in 3D electronic circuits, micromechanical devices, and sensing, such as biomedical applications. Therefore, it is a powerful new production technology on a very small scale: an important step towards the "functionalization" of 3D printing.

The research was done by the Solids, Surface and System Mechanics (MS3) and Design, Production and Management (DPM) departments, both of which are part of the Department of Engineering and Technology at the University of Twente. The researchers cooperated with DEMCON, a spin-off company of the University of Twente.

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