As technology becomes more and more enmeshed within our everyday lives, it’s surely only a matter of time before more of us start wearing it on our bodies. It’s been dismissed as a fad, but according to a 2014 study by Forbes, 71% of 16- to 24-year-olds want wearable tech. After a couple of false starts with products like Google Glass, we could soon be seeing some more promising developments in this field, thanks in part to a recent breakthrough by scientists in South Korea. They have come up with a new way of 3D printing electronic microstructures, which will be useful in the construction of all kinds of components, particularly for wearable tech.
The development of conceptually new technology applications is dependent in part on producing new structures and shapes for highly conductive materials. The smaller the structure, the smaller the electrical components need to be, and this gives designers and inventors more freedom to implement technology in new ways. 3D printing has been used in the past to make tiny structures that can be used for electronic components, but the technology was relatively limited in usage, according to the head of the South Korean research team, Seol Seung-Kwon. He and the rest of his scientists from the Korea Electrotechnology Research Institute were able to 3D print highly conductive carbon nanotubes by developing a new type of printing nozzle.
The statement from the researchers says that, “To achieve high-quality printing with continuous ink flow through a confined nozzle geometry, that is, without agglomeration and nozzle clogging, we (designed) a polyvinylpyrrolidone-wrapped MWNT ink with uniform dispersion and appropriate rheological properties.” What this breakthrough has achieved is to make the advantages of 3D printing technology, such as its broad design scope and fast, cheap prototyping capabilities, available to electrical engineers without the manufacturing limitations that were previously stalling progress. Engineers making use of 3D printing can now have signficantly more control over the ink that they are using to produce 3D structures.
Making the tiny components needed for wearable technology is one new application that is particularly desirable. Advanced wearables require a bendable material that is still able to integrate a huge amount of miniature circuit boards and components. The carbon nanotubes that can now be 3D printed would fit this requirement perfectly, due to their high level of conductivity and their ability to be fitted together into a complex, flexible structure.