Designing 3D-Printed Plastics with High-Performance Electrical Circuits

Engineers at Rutgers University have developed a technique that allows them to embed high-performance electrical circuits directly into 3D-printed plastics. This could lead to smaller and versatile drones and better-performing small satellites, biomedical implants and smart structures.

The team used pulses of high-energy light to fuse tiny silver wires, resulting in circuits that conduct 10 times more electricity than the state of the art, according to a study in the journal Additive Manufacturing. By increasing conductivity 10-fold, the engineers can reduce energy use, extend the life of devices and increase their performance.

Embedding electrical interconnections inside 3D-printed structures made of polymers, or plastics can create new paradigms for devices that are smaller and more energy-efficient. Such devices could include CubeSats (small satellites), drones, transmitters, light and motion sensors and Global Positioning Systems. Such interconnections are also often used in antennas, pressure sensors, electrical coils and electrical grids for electromagnetic shielding.

The engineers used high-tech “intense pulsed light sintering”- featuring high-energy light from a xenon lamp- to fuse long thin rods of silver called nanowires. Nanomaterials are measured in nanometers (a nanometer is a millionth of a millimeter- about 100,000 times thinner than a human hair). Fused silver nanomaterials are already used to conduct electricity in devices such as solar cells, displays and radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags.

However, the next steps in the process are a bit more unorthodox; 3D internal circuits are constructed for enhancing their conductivity and creating flexible internal circuits inside flexible 3D structures. The innovation shows considerable promise for developing an integrated unit using 3D printing and intense pulses of light to fuse silver nanoparticles for electronics.