July 17, 2013 By Colin Wood
Though it's been around for nearly 30 years, 3-D printing has only recently started to take off -- and the industry is predicted to reach $3.1 billion worldwide by 2016 and $5.2 billion by 2020.
Most 3-D printers thread spools of plastic filament onto a heated nozzle, which drops liquid plastic onto a surface one layer at a time until an object is formed, according to The New York Times.
But researchers at North Carolina State University in Raleigh have spent four years researching how to conduct 3-D printing in a new way -- with liquid metals.
The team found that by dispensing an alloy of gallium and indium from a needle, it’s possible to 3-D print metals at room temperature, which formed flexible structures that can hold their shape. Such bendable metal structures could be used in antennas, flexible displays, and wire bonds, the researchers suggested.
The alloy used in the research instantly forms a skin upon contact with air, about one nanometer thick, allowing the inside to remain a liquid while the exterior holds the structure in place. This method could replace existing techniques used for such 3-D liquid metal printing, which are usually limited to creating spherical structures, the researchers suggested.
Michael Dickey, assistant professor at the university's Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, published the research along with lead researcher and undergraduate Collin Ladd, and Ju-Hee So and John Muth.
“The thing that doesn’t catch people right away is the fact that we can make wires,” Dickey said. “To me, the stacking on the droplets is not all that surprising, but the fact that you can make wires is really cool because there’s at least two different ways [wires] fail.”