Georgia Tech create 480x faster nanoscale metal printing method

22nd January 2024
Kristian McCann

Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology have achieved a remarkable breakthrough in the field of nanoscale metal printing, unveiling a method that significantly surpasses existing technologies in terms of speed and cost-effectiveness. 

This innovative technique, spearheaded by Assistant Professor Sourabh Saha from the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering and his doctoral student, Jungho Choi, promises to revolutionise various technological domains, particularly those relying on the production of metallic nanostructures.

Their research, published in the prestigious journal Advanced Materials, introduces a light-based approach for printing metal at the nanoscale, a domain crucial for advancements in electronics, solar energy, sensors, and other systems. Nanopatterning, the technique involved, allows the creation of unique structures with exceptional functions.

Conventionally, nanopatterning necessitates high-intensity light sources, specifically femtosecond lasers. However, these lasers come with a prohibitive cost, often upwards of $500,000, making them inaccessible for many research laboratories and small-scale enterprises. This financial barrier has been a significant obstacle in transitioning nanotechnology from academic settings to practical, real-world applications.

Addressing this challenge, Saha and Choi questioned the necessity of such high-intensity light for nanoscale printing. Their research led them to superluminescent light emitting diodes (SLEDs), a more commercially viable option. SLEDs emit light a billion times less intense than femtosecond lasers but are suitable for the intended application.

The team developed an original projection-style printing technology. This system converts digital images into optical images, which are then displayed on a glass surface, akin to how digital projectors function. The innovative aspect lies in the ability of this system to produce images that are sharply focused, a critical factor in ensuring minimal defects in the final nanostructures.

The process involves a specially formulated clear ink solution, composed of metal salt and specific chemicals, allowing it to absorb light effectively. When exposed to light from the projection system, a chemical reaction occurs, transforming the salt solution into metal. This metal then adheres to the glass surface, aggregating to form the desired nanostructures.

This projection-based approach offers a significant advantage in speed, as it can print entire structures in a single step, unlike the point-by-point method inherent in conventional techniques. Remarkably, this method is 480 times faster and 35 times more cost-effective than current standard practices.

The affordability of SLEDs, costing around $3,000, contrasts sharply with the exorbitant price of femtosecond lasers. This cost difference holds immense potential for democratising nanoscale 3D printing, making it accessible beyond top-tier universities and elite research institutions. This accessibility could enable a broader spectrum of researchers and businesses to explore and innovate in fields like electronics, optics, and plasmonics.

As the electronics industry continually seeks more efficient and cost-effective manufacturing methods, particularly at the nanoscale, this breakthrough could signal a paradigm shift. The ability to rapidly and affordably produce intricate metal nanostructures paves the way for accelerated development and deployment of advanced electronic devices, potentially impacting a broad array of sectors including healthcare, renewable energy, and consumer electronics.

This advancement therefore represents a crucial step towards harnessing the full potential of nanotechnology.

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