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A University of Florida Researcher Has Discovered a Way to 3D Print Materials That Are Soft as a Cloud

purple jellyfish

It was only a matter of time before something like this came along. We’ve told you about 3D printers using organic “ink” to make flower pots and even printers that can create body parts, like human skin. But ironically, this story about 3D printers is actually pretty simple: a 3D printer that makes materials that are soft as clouds!

For more than 100 years, mechanical engineers have studied how hard materials – concrete and metal, for instance – respond to stress and strain. In recent years, they’ve tried to figure out how to manufacture softer materials, but have been stumped because soft materials are too fragile to be manufactured in the same way as hard materials.

But now, a University of Florida researcher has opened the door to a brand-new discipline in mechanical engineering. The discovery by assistant professor Tommy Angelini turns traditional engineering on its head.

“In simple terms, a hundred-plus years that we’ve built a foundation on in traditional mechanics is largely off the table with soft matter,” says David Hahn,chair of UF’s department of mechanical and aerospace engineering. “It really is a whole new frontier of engineering.”

They’re talking about Angelini’s idea to use microscopic hydrogel particles as a medium for 3-D printing of soft matter. According to University of Florida News, Angelini found that he could manufacture soft materials into shapes more fragile than anything found in nature, all with structural integrity, by using these particles that were 99.8 percent water and 20 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

“What if I could print you a structure that never solidified but it still held into place? That’s a new idea. It’s no longer about solidification, it’s more about placing things in space and leaving them where you put them. They aren’t going to move,” says Angelini. “This level of control is the foundation of all manufacturing.”

Professor Greg Sawyer, a co-author with Angelini, pointed to one of their manufactured inventions: a lifelike jellyfish. “Nobody in the world can make that jellyfish. We make them everyday,” he says. “When we have soft matter manufacturing, we can make things, and then it is the realm of the engineer. It’s kind of like an industrial revolution.”

The objects printed in the lab so far are orders of magnitude softer than any man-made object. Angelini says he doesn’t know of a lower limit to the mechanical integrity of the objects the lab can make, but Sawyer hints that, “[They] can make a cloud.” Of course, now the question becomes: what will these brilliant mechanical engineers do with this new technology? The possibilities are truly endless!

Photo credit: University of Florida

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