Recently, researchers from the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of South Florida (USF) received a patent and an official grant of $369,574 from the National Science Foundation (NSF). This amount will be used for the development of a method to 3D print copper directly on fabric. The new electrochemical process marks a new step in the development of portable electronics.
In our time, electronic gadgets have reached a level of development that no one could have imagined a few decades ago. Gone are the days of bulky devices that served only one purpose. Today we have connected watches, multifunction headphones and even wearable computer glasses, and the possibility of wearing clothes that integrate electronic devices does not seem so far away. In an effort to advance these technologies, Arash Takshi, associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, and Sylvia Thomas, professor and acting vice president of USF’s Institute for Research and Innovation, have developed a new method called Hydrogen Evolution Assisted Electroplating (HEA), which does possible to print copper directly onto fabrics, paving the way for many technological innovations.
Wearable electronics using copper 3D printing
The new process is divided into two phases. First, laser printing technology is used to apply a conductive pattern to the fabric. During this process, the fabric is carbonized, improving its stability and making it more durable. In the next step, electrolytic copper is used to produce a continuous copper pattern that forms the circuit layout for the electronic component on the fabric. The specially designed nozzle, which is mounted on a 3D printing unit, allows localized electroplating and growing of copper in the joints between the terminals of the electronic components and the printed circuit board and soldering them at room temperature. The main difference between the newly introduced method and the way it has been done in the past is that the voltage applied during the process has been increased, which ultimately results in the electrolysis of water along with the growth of copper, making speeding up the process and improving the mechanical stability of the printed structure.
Professor Arash Takshi explains: “ Current portable electronics technology consists mainly of conductive inks composed of metal and/or carbon nanoparticles. The process relies on the physical connections of the nanoparticles after the pattern is dried. However, the high electrical resistance of a conductive path made of conductive nanoparticles limits applications to simple designs of portable electronics. These are not suitable for sensitive measurements and high current applications.. Using this two-step additive manufacturing method, it would be possible to create more durable wearable technologies without damaging fabrics, as is often the case when using methods such as welding.
Thanks to the recently obtained patent and financial support from the NSF, this promising new method can be further developed and used in future projects in various sectors such as health, military or even space travel. For example, soldiers could wear new smart suits that would help them in battle, or astronauts could have suits that would be useful during space missions. This technology can even be used to monitor the health status of patients. You can find out more by reading the press release HERE.
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*Cover images: USF