Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory see amazing potential in 3D printing and additive manufacturing, and are focusing research toward further advances in the technology.
Ames Lab researchers have at their command four experimental 3D printers that cover a range of unique capabilities.
“The possibilities in 3-D printing are growing,” said Igor Slowing, Ames Laboratory scientist and adjunct professor of chemistry at Iowa State University. “And here at the Lab we have a lot of ideas about how to take this technology further. The world of 3D printing tech is full of amazing things right now. We want to be a part of that.”
Currently, the laboratory operates two filament extrusion printers, and a syringe-based injection printer. The lab also recently acquired a laser printer to use photochemical processes for producing three-dimensional objects. Slowing and his research partner, Ames Laboratory scientist and Iowa State associate chemistry professor Aaron Sadow, are also developing a printer capable of extruding metals with low energy input.
In addition, they expect to leverage the Critical Materials Institute’s 3D metals printer, which builds alloys on a substrate via metal powders that are melted by a laser. Slowing and Sadow also conduct research for the Critical Materials Institute, an Ames Laboratory-led U.S. Department of Energy Innovation Hub.
The range of equipment gives Ames Laboratory scientists the capability to print organic materials as well as inorganics, such as ceramics and metals.
Slowing said the goal of the research is to develop processes that will create unique materials and structures during the printing process, rather than printing pre-existing materials.
“For instance, currently you can print with plastics, but depending on the type of printer there are only two or three options you can use,” said Slowing. “By being able to mix the components during the printing process itself, we can create as many different polymers as we want.”
The approach can also be applied to the catalysis research, by manufacturing entire functional pieces at once, said Slowing.
“A catalytic device can be constructed—the support, the reactors, the catalysts—all in a single unit. For researchers, the advantage is that modifications to the reactor design can happen quickly, in-house, without having to wait for customization from an outside source.”
These catalytic devices could be used for sensing, purifying, refining “almost any application you could think of,” said Slowing.
Another objective for research in 3D printing at the Ames Laboratory is addressing the need for high resolution in additive manufacturing. Slowing believes that expertise in chemistry can bridge the gap between the nano- and macro-scale.
“If on one hand we are able to produce macroscopic solids with a 3D printer with a resolution down to a couple of microns, and on the other hand we can use the self-assembly methods of chemistry to organize groups of molecules into nanoparticles that can be organized up to a couple of microns, then we can control the manufacturing of matter in the whole range from the nano- up to the macro- scale,” said Slowing.
“The transformative potential of this research is very large and it is expected to create avenues for partnerships with other research facilities and industry.”
The 3D printers were acquired by Laboratory Directed Research and Development funds, which enable creative and innovative R&D projects at the Ames Laboratory. The projects are selected by the laboratory director to advance the laboratory’s mission.
Ames Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science national laboratory operated by Iowa State University. Ames Laboratory creates innovative materials, technologies and energy solutions. We use our expertise, unique capabilities and interdisciplinary collaborations to solve global problems. DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.