Nanotool build by Milara

Northeastern 3-D printer next Big thing using tiny particles

Northeastern University’s nano printer molds ultra-thin
layers into objects. By Callum Borchers GLOBE STAFF SEPTEMBER 18, 2014

The next big thing in three-dimensional printing is small —
so small it’s practically two-dimensional.

A machine unveiled Wednesday by Northeastern University
promises to speed up the manufacturing and drive down the cost of
everything from

consumer electronics to prescription drugs by printing in
ultra-thin layers as minuscule as 20 nanometers. That’s 1,000 times
thinner than

layers produced by conventional 3-D printers and about 4,000
times narrower than a human hair.

Going small could help advance many industries, said Ahmed
Busnaina, director of the university’s Center for High-rate
Nanomanufacturing. In

 medicine, for instance, drug particles that normally require
injections because of their size could be shrunk and printed onto
patches to be

absorbed through the skin. Silicon chips that today must be chiseled down to size like
marble blocks through an elaborate and expensive manufacturing process
could be

printed quickly and cheaply. “This phone could be made for 10 bucks,” Busnaina said,
holding his iPhone. Northeastern’s new gadget, the Nanoscale Offset
Printing System, does

not work in the familiar way of most 3-D printers, which
make a wide range of products — from car parts to jewelry — by stacking
layer upon

layer of liquid resin that hardens into forms designed with
computer software.

Instead, the nano printer begins with a template, perhaps a
mold for a chip, and dunks it in a solution full of nanoparticles that
will eventually

form the building blocks of a finished product. The
particles can be virtually any substance; but they are all extremely small. A
nanoparticle

of copper, for example, could be tens of times smaller than
a standard copper particle.

The machine applies an electric charge that attracts
nanoparticles to the template. The intensity of the charge determines how many
particles are

attracted, and therefore, how thick the product will be. Northeastern’s nano printer represents the latest innovation
in the burgeoning field of nanotechnology, a broad term that refers
to the

study and application of extremely small things. In the
three decades since the invention of a microscope that made it possible to
see

individual atoms, scientists have discovered advantages of
materials constructed at nanoscale — in building blocks of no more
than 100 nanometers.

Those benefits include increased strength and better
electrical conductivity.

Northeastern has made nanotechnology a focal point at its
engineering school. Another lab devoted to nanomedicine is working on
joint

replacements built from nanoparticles that could promote
faster healing and lower infection rates after surgeries.

The university partnered with Milara Inc. of Medway, a maker
of industrial printers, to produce the nano printer. The
project was funded

in part by a $24.5 million grant from the National Science
Foundation and $7 million from the Massachusetts Technology
Collaborative, a

quasi-public economic development agency. Busnaina said Northeastern and Milara hope to sell printers
to medical

device companies, electronics makers, and other firms for
between $1million and $1.5 million.

And the products they will make? Ten-dollar phones are
probably a long way off, Busnaina conceded. But he sees near-term potential
in flexible,

super-thin skin sensors that could be worn continuously and
collect biometric data for many purposes, from improving athletic
performance

to detecting cancer. “I see things coming out to the consumer in one or two
years,” he said.

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