Advanced materials harnessed for portable 3D printing device

Researchers have harnessed advanced materials with a combination of conductivity and flexibility to develop highly sensitive wearable devices that offer dual purpose.

A team from the University of British Columbia Okanagan (UBCO) has used high-resolution extrusion printing to develop small, lightweight devices that act as both shields against electromagnetic interference (EMI) and as a sensor of bodily movement. EMI fields may have applications in the healthcare, aerospace and automotive sectors, the researchers said.

The devices, which can be integrated into clothing and equipment, were made with a conductive ink composed of MXene, a two-dimensional inorganic nanomaterial as well as a conductive polymer.

MXene is a smart carbon material that, like its cousin graphene, has a useful combination of properties – it’s both highly conductive and flexible, said Mohammad Arjmand, assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in advanced materials and polymer engineering at UBCO’s School of Engineering.

When used in conductive ink, it’s ideal for making new wearable devices, which are increasingly part of everyday life, he said. “Extrusion printing of these conductive materials will allow for large-scale patterning, which means we can produce different shapes or geometries, and the product will have exceptional architectural flexibility,” Arjmand said in a press release.

Simplify wearable manufacturing

Indeed, historically, it has not been easy to manufacture garments using traditional manufacturing means that meet the flexible and user-friendly requirements of these devices while allowing them to function well. Current functional material fabrication technologies are mostly limited to laminated, unsophisticated structures that don’t allow integration of monitoring technologies, said UBC PhD student Ahmadreza Ghaffarkhah, who works on the team. ‘Arjmand.

Extrusion printing, on the other hand, offers customization, reduced material waste and rapid production, while opening up many opportunities for wearable and smart electronics, Arjmand said. “As extrusion printing techniques improve, it opens the door to many unique innovations,” he said in a press release.

Fine-tune the process

The UBCO team tweaked the printing process used so that it could meet both the needs for high resolution printing and the precise structures required by the dual-use device, Ghaffarkhah said. “These printed structures can be seeded with micro-cracks to develop highly sensitive sensors,” she explained. “Tiny cracks in their structures are used to track small vibrations in their environment.” The vibrations can be used to monitor many human activities, including breathing, facial movements and speech, as well as the contraction and relaxation of a muscle, she said.

The researchers published an article about their work in the journal Carbon. They collaborated with scientists from Drexel University and the University of Toronto on the research. The team will continue to investigate other applications for the extrusion printing inks and the process it has developed that go beyond wearable electronics, the researchers said.

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