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3D Printed “Smart Particles” Promise Revolutionary Micro Structures

Posted on January 9th, 2018 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence


Picture for a moment a pile of bricks, where each brick could be somehow programmed to intelligently self-assemble with the others.  As you’d imagine, making a complex structure like a house or a castle with technology like this would be a trivial task.

It would be so simple, in fact, that we would only need to drop the bricks on the ground and watch them connect.

Now imagine those bricks were microscopic. Sounds like the work of science fiction, doesn’t it?

Thanks to a joint effort between scientists at NYU’s Department of Chemical Engineering and South Korea’s School of Chemical Engineering at Sungkyunkwan University, this science fiction has taken a step closer to becoming reality.

Through their research, they have discovered methods for creating what they call “patchy particles,” which are particles that are able to self-assemble.

How Patchy Particles Work

These structures are created by engineering a cluster of initial particles, which will interact with neighbouring particles in a known and predictable way.

The team uses coordination dynamics and wetting forces to develop hybrid liquid-solid clusters in a controlled environment. They are then able to model the evolutionary pathway by considering surface energy minimization, which allows them to predict the structure of the “patchy particles” formed.

Creating Patchy Particles

To accurately model how the initial cluster will evolve, the team developed simulation software they call Surface Evolver.

They are able to model the surface topography of each particle and predict how each will interact with other particles as they come into contact and are exposed to external forces.

Why Make Self Assembling Micro-structures?

While it might seem some way off (and probably is), the end goal of this research is to efficiently mass produce self-assembling micro-machinery and materials that require minimal human intervention.

Where a regular 3D printer now could create the shell of a model car, 3D-printed smart particles might one day enable us to output a fully functional, fully assembled model. We could “print” tiny model cars which actually run.

With an infinite combination of possible particle topologies, the possibilities are endless. This could be the type of technology that gets us closer to the likes of Star Trek replicators or similar Sci-Fi systems, which instantly rebuild or rematerialize structures on command.

While patchy particles are currently confined to experimentation in that lab, the people behind them have high hopes for the first industrial applications in the not too distant future. Self-building castles, tiny operational cars, and Star Trek style replicators are still a way off, but this research could be a step in that direction.

All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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