CAMBRIDGE, MA—As electronics manufacturers hunt for new ways to take advantage of 3D printed electronics, they are running up against the limitations of available 3D printer inks. These special inks, already in use across a broad range of applications, are growing in demand for their fine line performance, conductivity and formability. Emerging applications for these conductive inks include RFID tags, glucose sensors and automotive occupancy detection.
Among 3D printer inks, silver nanoparticle inks have enjoyed a special niche by becoming the most widely diffused product with the highest sales volumes. But as silver nanoparticle inks have proven to be quite promising for lower power electronic systems, they are not as useful for systems that require high-current density, known as “power electronics,” such as drones, robots and flexible RF antennas.
For instance, today’s 3D antennas are made with wire or copper or other bulky materials, but printing these materials is a challenge with the available printed inks. The same challenge exists with a drone or robotic system which could benefit from having a single, scaled-down control board to process all of the power, but that can be too much energy for silver.
In addressing this challenge, Draper and a team of collaborators are rethinking current approaches to 3D printing and discovering surprising results by using alternative nano-layered materials for printing power electronics. Using a multistep process, Draper developed an alloy that is inherently high-temperature stable—more stable than silver nanoparticle inks—and used it to produce a set of conductors to demonstrate the viability of their approach. They recently shared their results at the 2018 FLEX Conference.
The current work is part of Draper’s ongoing commitment and internal investment in additive manufacturing applied to electronics. Draper’s additive manufacturing capabilities enable designs that otherwise cannot be built. For instance, Draper has printed power antenna using metal 3D printing and a patent-pending hybrid 3D-microelectronics process, a process which combines two of Draper’s advanced technologies: 3D printing and microelectronics. The function-based approach to development reduces manufacturing cost, size, weight and power requirements, and enables diversified design shape and structure in emerging technology spaces.