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Soft machines on the way

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Everyone’s favourite, well mine anyway, Terminator was the one who assumed the persona of a policeman, you know the one who could fashion a horrible poker out of a finger and do unspeakable things to people.

And as it is wont to do, technology is imitating art with a recent advance in 3D printable metals bringing the possibility of soft, malleable robots one step closer.

Engineers at Oregon State University have found a way to 3D print tall, complicated structures with a highly conductive gallium alloy. The 3D printing process could be used to make flexible computer screens and other stretchable electronic devices, including soft robots.

Gallium alloys, which typically have low toxicity and good conductivity, are already used as the conductive material in many flexible electronics. They're also inexpensive and 'self-healing,' meaning they can reattach at break points.

Until now, however, these gallium alloys have not been 3D printed, limiting their use to specific applications.

The exciting new 3D printing development at OSU, which could open up these alloys to several further applications, involves the use of a process called sonification, which uses sound energy to mix nickel particles and oxidized gallium into a 3D printable metal.

The engineers found that this alloy could be 3D printed into structures up to 10 millimeters high and 20 millimeters wide.

Without the nickel particles, the gallium would be too runny to print. But with the nickel mixed in using sonification, the mixture becomes paste-like and easily 3D printable. Moreover, the electrical properties of the paste are comparable to pure liquid metal, while the paste also retains self-healing characteristics.

“The runny alloy was impossible to layer into tall structures,” explains Yiğit Mengüç, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and co-corresponding author on the study. “With the paste-like texture, it can be layered while maintaining its capacity to flow, and to stretch inside of rubber tubes.”

To demonstrate the power of their new gallium 3D printing technique, the researchers 3D printed a “very stretchy” two-layered circuit whose layers weave in and out of each other without touching. Other future applications could include electrically conductive textiles, bendable displays, strain sensors, wearable sensor suits, antennae, and biomedical sensors.

From 3D printed gallium alloy could make soft robots that 'walk out of the printer' published on http://www.3ders.org


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