Graphene is, if the title of this article hasn’t already given it away, the strongest 3D Printing material to have ever been produced yet. In layman’s terms, Graphene is a thin layer of pure carbon; it is a single, tightly packed layer of carbon atoms that are bonded together in a hexagonal honeycomb lattice. In more complex terms, it is an allotrope of carbon in the structure of a plane of sp2 bonded atoms with a molecule bond length of 0.142 nanometres. For those of you who haven’t exactly comprehended the above scientific extravagance, Graphene is special not because of its extremely complex lattice structure, but because of its miraculous correlation between density and strength.
Arrangement of Graphene carbon atoms. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Generally speaking, if I were to claim that a certain material was the strongest I’d ever seen, one would immediately picture something dense and heavy, something relatively cumbersome to carry around. But not Graphene. With the strength that surpasses that of steel coupled with a light weighted structure and low density, Graphene has proven to be the most stable and sturdy material, transcending that of steel by approximately 10 times, whilst also weighing about a fraction of the aforementioned metal. This isn’t its only upside either, Graphene is also an excellent and efficient conductor of electricity, and thanks to its low density, has also been produced to be paper-thin and transparent.
However, this has caused problems. Whilst the researchers at MIT, founders and creators of this neoteric design, had envisioned this material to be used for additive manufacturing to take full advantage of its unique properties and use to contrive airplanes, cars, and buildings. But they soon came across some obstacles.
Problem with 2-Dimensional Graphene:
Due to the sheer thinness of the material, researchers soon found that constructing vehicles would be in vain, believing that the Graphene would tear as easily as paper. They wished to translate their two-dimensional product into a three-dimensional dream. It is 2-dimensional because the material is a flat sheet with one atom in thickness but can be indefinitely large in the other dimensions. So, they continued to persevere and eventually manufactured a newer form of Graphene, with “sponge-like” configuration at a density of only 5%. Combining heat and pressure, scientists were able to successfully compress small flakes of Graphene to achieve a strong, stable structure, resembling “some corals and microscopic creatures called diatoms”, Markus Buehler, the head of MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), said in a statement. To test the newest version of the materials, researchers set out to perform a series of tests to deduce the highest limit to which the strongest possible material could undergo.
Watch the Simulation of 3D Printing Graphene material:
McAfee Professor of Engineering, Zhao Qin, said that, in one of their computational simulations, which mimicked the loading conditions of tension and compression in a tensile loading machine, one of their samples was found to have 5% the density of steel, but 10 times its strength. The new constructions were made in a lab using a high resolution, multi material 3D printer. They were tested for their mechanical abilities, to see if their tensile and compressive properties could withstand the team’s theoretical models, which were then used as simulators.
After passing (with flying colours, might I add), the potential uses for Graphene were envisioned endlessly. It was assumed that Graphene would provide a replacement of Helium for balloons, but that thought was quickly scrapped as they came to realize that the material would not have sufficient strength at such low densities and that it would collapse from the surrounding atmospheric pressure. Buehler said that, one could either use the real Graphene material or use the geometry, that they discovered, with other materials like polymers or metals. He further stated that the material could be replaced with anything. The geometry was a dominant factor and that it had the potential to transfer many things.
3D Printed Graphene material could potentially be a game changer in the 3D Printing material space. But then again, it will take sometime for researchers to truly exploit the applications of this material and make it commercially available for the masses.