“Flat” and “rigid” are terms typically used to describe electronic devices. But the increasing demand for flexible, wearable electronics, sensors, antennas, and biomedical devices has led a research team to innovate an eye-popping way of printing complex metallic architectures as though seemingly suspended in midair.

The work was conducted by researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and will be reported online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The laser-assisted direct ink writing method prints microscopic metallic, free-standing 3-D structures in one step, without auxiliary support material. The research was led by Wyss core faculty member Jennifer Lewis, who is also the Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at SEAS.

Printing metal in midair

<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7lSZWOJwPA" rel="nofollow" target="_blank"><img src="https://img.youtube.com/vi/_7lSZWOJwPA/0.jpg" alt="0" title="How To Choose The Correct Channel Type For Your Video Content " /></a>
In this video, see the laser-assisted method developed by Wyss core faculty member Jennifer Lewis that allows metal to be 3-D printed in midair. Credit: Lewis Lab/Wyss Institute at Harvard University

“I am truly excited by this latest advance from our lab, which allows one to 3-D print and anneal flexible metal electrodes and complex architectures ‘on-the-fly,’” said Lewis.

Lewis’ team used an ink composed of silver nanoparticles. The ink is sent through a printing nozzle and then annealed using a precisely programmed laser that applies just the right amount of energy to drive its solidification. The printing nozzle moves along x, y, and z axes and is combined with a rotary print stage to enable freeform curvature. In this way, tiny hemispherical shapes, spiral motifs, even a butterfly made of silver wires narrower than a hair’s width can be printed in free space within seconds. The printed wires also exhibit excellent electrical conductivity, almost matching that of bulk silver.

When compared to conventional 3-D printing techniques used to fabricate conductive metallic features, laser-assisted direct ink writing is superior also because it allows the silver wires to be printed directly on low-cost plastic substrates.

According to the study’s first author, Wyss Institute Postdoctoral Fellow Mark Skylar-Scott, the most challenging aspect of honing the technique was optimizing the nozzle-to-laser separation distance.

4D-printed structure changes shape when placed in water

“If the laser gets too close to the nozzle during printing, heat is conducted upstream, which clogs the nozzle with solidified ink,” said Skylar-Scott. “To address this, we devised a heat transfer model to account for temperature distribution along a given silver-wire pattern, allowing us to modulate the printing speed and distance between the nozzle and laser to elegantly control the laser annealing process ‘on the fly.’”

The result is that the method can produce not only sweeping curves and spirals but also sharp angular turns and directional changes written into thin air with silver inks, opening up nearly limitless potential applications in electronic and biomedical devices that rely on customized metallic architectures.

“This sophisticated use of laser technology to enhance 3-D printing capabilities not only inspires new kinds of products, it moves the frontier of solid free-form fabrication into an exciting new realm, demonstrating once again that previously accepted design limitations can be overcome by innovation,” said Wyss Institute Director Donald Ingber, who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as professor of bioengineering at SEAS.

In addition to Lewis and Skylar-Scott, Suman Gunasekaran is a co-author on the study. Gunasekaran is undergraduate researcher studying chemistry and physics at SEAS.

The work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy.