Later this month, the city of Manchester and home of graphene, will host Graphene Week 2015, a conference that will examine the science and technology of one of the world’s most promising materials. The University of Manchester recently opened the doors to its £61million National Graphene Institute to explore the possibilities of this ‘2D material’ and its applications. But what about graphene in the 3D space?
Graphene is the thinnest material on earth but has exceptional properties that make it incredibly versatile. The Nobel Prize winning material can be as tough as a diamond, 200 times stronger than steel and is as flexible as rubber. It’s also a great conductor, a property that makes it a compelling choice for researchers working in manufacturing and electronics. That’s where 3D printing comes in.
Graphene 3D Lab is a product of Graphene Laboratories, a world leader in manufacturing and retailing graphene and advanced materials. Set up by husband and wife team Dr. Daniel Stolyarov and Dr. Elena Polyakova in 2014, the company’s aim is to develop graphene materials designed to improve the capabilities of 3D printing.
“Realistically you are adding a third dimension of electronics,” Elena told TCT. “What we anticipate is you can really use 3D printing when you need to embed wiring in 3D objects. If you have a cube you can print wires and add sensors, something you cannot do with standard PBCs.”
3D printed flash light with graphene filament.
With traditional methods, creating objects with electronics can be a long process of trial and error. Designing and obtaining a PCB can take weeks to create and then send for making by an external supplier. However with 3D printing and graphene, this process can be reduced to just hours and Graphene 3D Lab, with a team of collaborators, have developed software which can convert a standard PCB to a printable STL file to enable real integrated circuits.
“It takes time to convince people that this is something they can use in real life. Realistically it is very easy for them to generate layout for electronics. In 3D printing we use STL files. That’s the key problem, how we go from something they understand to something that can be used in 3D printing.
Elena continued: “Right now we are looking for people with ideas. Technology is here and you can really print complex objects. We’re looking for challenges and really cool projects to work on. Realistically when people start with a new technology they try to use the technology to replicate things that already exist. It takes a genius and imagination to come up with something that doesn’t exist with this technology.”
The company recently began commercial sales of its Conductive Graphene Filament designed for 3D printing circuitry and sensor applications. The idea is to enable desktop users to make simple items such as a flashlight or battery holder but the company hopes to take that further and introduce more complex applications.
“Our company made this material over a year ago but now we’re trying to do something with these materials,” Elena explained. “It’s still very simple things because right now we are limited by FDM technology and relatively inexpensive hardware. But now we’re working on the development of our own 3D printer which will allow users to combine many different materials and also can combine several different deposition metals.”
Earlier this year, the company teamed up with Pennsylvania based tech start-up, ZeGo Robotics to develop a proof of concept 3D printer designed specifically for their conductive graphene filament and to maximise long-term benefits for the company’s R&D projects. The company has also struck up a key partnership with high-strength 3D printing filament company taulman 3D to bring a sterilisation compatible nylon material to the market.
“Right now it’s still far away from professional use for manufacturing,” Elena commented. “That’s why we see most of our customers are people you would call makers. For us our key goal is to create a machine that will be able to work with as many different materials and can print complex objects. We’re going to find more and more professional uses.”
For Elena, those professional uses are not about simply using 3D printing to recreate devices or solutions we already have. Often in this industry we see a lot of reinventing the wheel, creating items that were fine just the way they were but manufactured with 3D printing just to show we can. 3D printing with graphene needs to be about new ideas and designing fresh, complex items that we wouldn’t have been able to achieve in the past with traditional methods and materials.
“Do we want to 3D print a cell phone?” Elena asks. “I think it’s a stupid idea because you can make it by many different means. To come up with an idea to print something that doesn’t exist now is something the community will have to think about.”