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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Researchers Develop Flexible Metal For 3-D Printers

A group of researchers from North Carolina State University have developed a liquid metal material that could be used in 3-D printers and lead to flexible gadgets.

The technology is outlined in a paper published in the journal Advanced Materials, which describes the flexible metal as “stretchable” and explains that many tiny dots of this material could be placed together to create larger, bendable sheets of metal.

The metal, an alloy of gallium and indium, is liquid at room temperature. But when it is exposed to air the alloy can create a thin skin around its outer layer. Think of the way air bubbles look when floating on top of water.

Although flexible metal might sound futuristic enough, the paper also says that this metal can be “self-healing,” similar to animals that can regenerate limbs when they are sliced off.

“These stretchable wires can be completely severed with scissors and rapidly self-heal both mechanically and electrically,” the paper notes.

A video demonstrating how the technology works uses a syringe to produce tiny dots of the metal that connect with each other and collectively join together.

“The fact that they are liquid means you could surround them with another material like rubber to make metallic structures that you can stretch and deform,” Michael Dickey, an assistant professor of engineering at North Carolina State University, told New Scientist in an interview.

Mr. Dickey said that if the syringe was switched with a 3-D printing head, that would produce a 3-D printer that could print metal. There is at least one caveat though. The material’s cost, he said, is roughly 100 times that of 3-D printing plastic.