New 3D printed material could lead to engineering breakthroughs

Scientists at the University of Glasgow have mixed a common industrial plastic with carbon nanotubes. The resulting material could find applications in medicine, prosthetics and automobile and aerospace industries. It is much stronger, tougher and smarter than similar conventional materials, but what does that even mean in terms of application?

Carbon nanotubes are basically what they sound – very small hollow tubes of carbon. Scientists have been interested in them for quite some time, because carbon nanotubes can be extremely tough, while also very light. They can also carry electric charge and their properties can be changed electrically. That is one of the interesting features of this new material.

Scientists in Scotland mixed a common industrial plastic polypropylene random copolymer with multi-wall carbon nanotubes. Plastic usually is not electrically conductive, but carbon nanotubes change that. Furthermore, electrical resistance changes according to the load presented to this new material. This means that in a way it is able to sense its surroundings. This peculiar property could allow assessing the structural condition of a part made from this composite material just by measuring its resistance.

Three architectures scientists tested with their new polypropylene random copolymer and carbon nanotubes material. Image credit: University of Glasgow

Scientists used 3D printing techniques to create intricate designs with mesoscale porous architecture from this material. There are tiny little air gaps in it, which help make the material significantly lighter, while intricate architecture helps maintain its structural strength and toughness. Researchers believe that this kind of material could be used in medicine, prosthetics and automobile and aerospace design. Its toughness, strength and self-sensing abilities could be harnessed in these industries.

Interestingly, these 3D-printed structures were inspired by nature. These designs can be seen in beehives, sponge and bone – natural growing things that are relatively light, but strong. Dr Shanmugam Kumar, lead author of the study, said: “Nature has a lot to teach engineers about how to balance properties and structure to create high performance lightweight materials. We’ve taken inspiration from these forms to develop our new cellular materials, which offer unique advantages over their conventionally produced counterparts and can be finely tuned to manipulate their physical properties.”

Scientists are always looking at nature for inspiration, especially for advanced materials. Hopefully this composite material with carbon nanotubes can be commercialised soon and can be developed into light, but strong objects we could all take advantage of.

 

Source: University of Glasgow

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