There’s a new way to 3D print graphene, the strongest material on Earth

Virginia Tech, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

With its incredible strength and potentially wondrous applications, there’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to graphene. But it’s one thing to demonstrate these capabilities in the lab; others entirely to turn it into something usable in real-world situations. That’s something researchers at Virginia Tech University and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have been working to change. In the process, they found a way to combine two of the most promising buzzwords in technology — “graphene” and “3D printing” — to open up a world of exciting new possibilities.

“We were able to achieve 3D graphene aerogels and foams with arbitrary form factors and 3D features,” Xiaoyu “Rayne” Zheng, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech, told Digital Trends. “We have formulated and printed light-sensitive graphene precursors that are compatible with a desktop SLA printer. This opens up the freedom to realize 3D graphene with any topology of co-optimized mechanical properties, hierarchical pore sizes, surfaces, [and] conductivity for a range of applications.”

Ordinary graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb-like hexagonal lattice. If graphene is packed, layer by layer, it becomes graphite: the material most often used as the “pencil” in ordinary pencils. Now, we love pencils as much as anyone, but anyone who’s ever owned a pencil lead might find it hard to believe that this is one of the toughest materials on the planet. This is because of the way it is packed together, which fundamentally changes the structure of graphene.

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The researchers on this project got around this by separating individual sheets of graphene with air-filled pores, allowing it to retain its properties. The resulting 3D printing material is something called graphene airgel.

“Graphene aerogels hold promise for a number of applications—including energy storage and conversion, catalysis, sorbents, and desalination,” Marcus Worsley, LLNL researcher on the project, told us. “Recent work has shown some performance improvements for simple 3D printed structures, but more complex, computer-generated architectures are predicted to be significantly superior. These gains should translate into devices that are more powerful, more efficient and longer lasting. This is the main direction of our current and future work in this area.”

It may be a while before we start 3D printing with graphene in our home offices, but this is still a huge step in that direction.

“In terms of commercialization, we are always happy to work with potential commercial partners to bring our inventions to market,” Worsley continued. A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Materials Horizon.

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