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Northeastern 3-D printer next big thing using tiny particles

Northeastern University’s nano printer molds ultra-thin layers into objects.
Northeastern University’s nano printer molds ultra-thin layers into objects.

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.

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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.

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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 $1 million 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.


Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.

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