3D Printing a Lighter, Ultra-Strong World?

A new paper, published by scientists at Abu Dhabi’s Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, proposes a method of 3D printing which may allow ordinary materials to take on enhanced levels of strength at a reduced weight.

The strongest materials, for creating buildings, cars and even bridges, have traditionally been heavy, dense materials. New research, led by Dr Rashid Abu Al-Rub, suggests a way that 3D printing can turn that tradition entirely on its head.

The paper, titled ‘Electrical Conductivity of 3D Periodic Architectured Interpenetrating Phase Composites with Carbon Nanostructured-Epoxy Reinforcements‘, details how even lightweight materials can be given great strength. The key here is structure. Using existing materials, it is possible to give them great durability, while reducing their mass. The paper uses the example of the Eiffel Tower, which stands as a solid design, even though its structure is 90% air, because of the angles and shapes of its skeleton. The metal pieces of the tower support us other, providing strength through design alone. The same is true of Dr. Abu Al-Rub’s proposed designs, which largely use lightweight foam as a building material. The idea is not to create objects which look like the Eiffel Tower, a mesh of criss-crosses and angles. The idea is instead to apply these principles of design on a much smaller level, in terms of nanometres, inside the materials themselves. This means that a material may look solid and feel strong, while on a miniscule level, its form is largely empty space.

Eiffel Tower Closeup
An excellent example of strength through design, on a slightly larger scale.

Materials can be printed with a variety of these structures, with thousands of possible designs being produced by a specially-programmed computer. Apparently, different geometric designs can also have a range of effects on factors like heating, electrical and functional properties of the object. What does all this mean? It means we may need to really start rethinking how we build everything. When your car/home/computer can be designed to be lighter than ever, stronger than ever and to stay at your ideal temperature, that’s a definite game changer. Transportation also has uncountable possible benefits as stronger, lighter planes, trains and cars can only mean cheaper, safer, faster journeys. Then there’s lightweight clothing that traps body heat with no added bulk for arctic exploration or discreet body armour or bullet-proof glass. As this design technique develops, it’s hard not to get excited at the possibilities. Of course, all of this is still a great distance down the road.
Abu Al-Rub’s team have tried their complex 3D printing with a variety of substances, including foams, metals and plastics and the results suggest that the world we build around us could one day be a lot sleeker and a lot less fragile than today’s.

Ronan Daly

Ronan Daly is a staff writer for My Good Planet who specialises in Technology and Science. With a Masters Degree in English, and over a decade's experience as a teacher and writer, Ronan has brought a breezy, learned style to My Good Planet, making occasionally complex material accessible and understandable to all.

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