Applications for 3D printing are growing at dizzying speed. One new strategy, however, stands out because it marries plastics, 3D printing and electroplating to easily create a complex research instrument that manipulates individual molecules.
Researcher Andeas Osterwalder used 3D printing to create in plastic the form of a molecular beam splitter, then electroplated it with nickel to give an instrument with the fine detail, mechanical strength and conductivity to perform his experiments.
Osterwalder and colleague Sean Gordon published their work in a recent edition of the peer-reviewed journal Physical Review Applied. It was subsequently publicized by 3D printer manufacturer Formlabs GmbH of Berlin in its marketing materials.
"This opens tremendous possibilities in our type of experiments," Osterwalder said in an email from his office at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland.
"[Previously] experiments often had to be adjusted to what is possible. With 3D printing we are completely free in the design, and we can simply think up a structure that we need, and then we make it."
Osterwalder said it took little more than a week to construct the beam splitter, including the CAD work and shipping the 3D part to and from the electroplating house, the Swiss company Galvotec GmbH which is headquartered in Schöfflisdorf, Switzerland.
Making the same piece in the EPFL mechanical workshop would have taken several months. As well, the beam splitter contains separate electrically conductive and insulating components, which would be difficult to align and mount.