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Brief Published: 24 Sep 2018

Could 3D-Printed Liquid Enable Shapeshifting Electronics?

Researchers in the US have discovered a way to print 3D structures made entirely of liquid. The all-liquid material could be used to construct electronics that power flexible, stretchable devices – potentially unlocking fresh opportunities for industries including wearable design and healthcare.

Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in California are using a modified 3D printer to ‘print’ lines of water into a vat of hydrophobic liquid silicone oil. To stop the water from splitting into droplets, a tubular vessel of “nanoparticle supersoap” surrounds the water to stabilise it and keep it contained. The threads of water are finer than a human hair and several metres long, and can be manipulated into elliptical or round cross-sections that remain stable for months. 

Although the research is a long way from incorporation into commercial products, it has the potential to redefine how designers use liquid materials. The team, led by Tom Russell, suggests that this innovation could also be used to aid chemical synthesis, and serve as a transport and delivery system for nanoscale particles to build components.

According to the research published in Advanced Materials: “Fully exploiting all‐liquid systems that are structured by their interfaces would create a new class of biomimetic, reconfigurable, and responsive materials.” 

On a larger scale, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a breakthrough 3D printing technology which can rapidly produce objects using a robot and a tank of gel. The process improves on the speed, scale and quality of existing 3D printing methods. See examples of liquid printed products in Democratised Design.