May 15, 2019

Graphene 3D Printing – Can It Be Done?

As discoveries around graphene applications abound, many are wondering if it can be scaled to 3D. This could have revolutionary effects, but it begs the question, have scientists been successful in graphene 3D printing? Find out!

Graphene 3D Printing Is It Possible?

A sample of graphene flakes. Source: Graphenea

So, is it possible to 3D print graphene? The short answers is, not really. Here’s why.

Graphene is pure carbon, just like coal and graphite. So, what’s so special and promising about it? Graphene exists as a single layer of carbon atoms bonded together in a honeycomb-like structure. The bond is extremely strong but very light. In fact, scientists say graphene is 10 times stronger than a diamond and 100 times stronger than steel.

Apart from its impressive strength and lightness, graphene is electrically conductive. This means graphene has great potential to replace silicon in all our electronics. Experts have also noticed the great potential for graphene in the production of flexible displays since it’s both flexible and transparent, and electrically conductive.

However, because the atomic bonds are only in the lateral direction, it can only exist in 2D. Once multiple layers of graphene are stacked one onto each other, you get graphite, which has relatively poor properties. This means 3D printing pure graphene is impossible. A 3D structure is only possible when graphene is mixed with a binder.

Nevertheless, graphene is a promising material with huge potential to revolutionize the industry. Let’s take a more detailed look at the current innovative processes in graphene 3D printing.

Graphene 3D Printing FDM

3D printing graphene is like 3D printing a piece of paper. Source: Imperial College London / YouTube

The research team from the Department of Materials at the Imperial College London have devised a solution that’s capable of making 3D objects from graphene-polymer composites.

Their method is based on FDM 3D printing and uses a special filament consisting of a polymer and graphene flakes. The graphene flakes lend the amazing properties of graphene while the polymer enables the layers to bond and create a 3D object.

Their research found that for the final part to have the full effects of graphene, the 3D printed object must be exposed to high temperatures after printing. This “sets” the final object.

They’ve had success thus far, but because it’s a fairly new project, this technology still isn’t capable of printing very precise or large objects. Regardless, this is for sure a massive step forward in graphene 3D printing research.

Graphene 3D Printing SLA

Graphene aerogel is one graphene composite that can be produced through SLA 3D printing. Source: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Another innovative approach to graphene 3D printing comes from a collaboration between the Virginia Tech College of Engineering and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The research from these respected institutions has developed a new way of graphene 3D printing that’s capable of making precise objects formed into any shape you can possibly think of.

The process starts with making a graphene oxide hydrogel. Graphene oxide is a compound similar to graphene, but with oxide integrated with the carbon atoms. The hydrogel is a 3D structure made from polymer chains with cross-links holding the polymer chains together.

The graphene-oxide is then broken apart with ultrasound, and the light-sensitive polymer (hydrogel) is added. Now, research shows it’s possible to use this graphene oxide hydrogel as a resin for 3D printing with micro-stereolithography (SLA) technology. The result is 3D objects that contain graphene-oxide, which gives the printed part a large majority of the amazing properties of graphene.

After the printing process is finished, the 3D printed parts need to be heated so that the polymers can dissolve. What’s left after heating is a so-called graphene aerogel, an extremely lightweight structure.

Despite this process being more advanced than the FDM-based process described above, it’s still far from finished, as only very small structures can be created.

Graphene 3D Printing Back to the Lab

Using a piece of tape on a solid block of graphite led to the discovery of graphene. Source: The Verge / YouTube

Researchers are having a hard time trying to figure out how to enable graphene 3D printing because it’s a very unique material.

Not only is graphene very challenging to 3D print, it’s also expensive and hard to produce. The hype around graphene started in 2004 with an experiment of graphite and tape. Since then, many scientists and engineers recognized graphene’s phenomenal properties and stated it could indeed bring revolution into different industries.

In order for graphene to bring revolution into various industries, it has to be possible to mass produce it at large-scale. The reason why the hype around graphene never truly lived up to its expectations is that we’re still not capable of 3D printing graphene on a large-scale. All the current developments are only working with tiny structures.

In the end, we’re still in the very early stages of graphene 3D printing. The progress so far looks promising, but there’s a long road ahead before graphene starts making its way into everything we interact with on a daily basis.

Feature image source: Imperial College London / YouTube

License: The text of "Graphene 3D Printing – Can It Be Done?" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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