Traditionally, the function of “printing” entailed the transfer of data, ideas or knowledge from the spoken or abstract environment to a more physical format – like taking descriptions of manufacturing equipment and putting them on a piece of paper.
In the present, printing means building. Building prototypes of workable parts for closer scrutiny. Building models of internal systems to help doctors prepare for surgery. And in the not-so-distant future, building sensors, memory devices, batteries or integrated circuits that can be transferred to nearly any surface or material.
Researchers from NASA Ames and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory describe their work in the latest Applied Physics Letters. They’ve developed a process that converts materials to a plasma state in printing nanomaterials onto three-dimensional objects or flexible surfaces, like paper or cloth.
Printing nanomaterials is not new, but it usually entails the use of an inkjet printing approach. And although inkjet technology is not without its merits, it simply won’t accommodate flexible materials, let alone a solid, three-dimensional object. Additionally, not all printing materials are easily broken down to the liquid state an inkjet printing head demands.
Aerosol printing has been another successful technique, but this entails heating materials to temperatures that not all object surfaces can handle. Plasma, on the other hand, works at temperatures of around 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
It also uses a nozzle to apply materials, meaning that the printing function could resemble anything from a shower-head type of applicator with multiple outlets, to a larger hose-like nozzle for wider spread application.
Researchers are also investigating the use of materials that include copper and aluminum. In theory, they could be printed as thin sheets and processed to create batteries for portable devices.