“This shows that we can use 3-D printing to create complex electronics including semiconductors,” said McAlpine, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. “We were able to 3-D print an entire device, in this case an LED… We used the quantum dots [also known as nanoparticles] as an ink,” McAlpine said. “We were able to generate two different colors, orange and green.”
The contact lens is also part of an ongoing effort to use 3-D printing to assemble diverse, and often hard-to-combine, materials into functioning devices. In the recent past, a team of Princeton professors including McAlpine created a bionic ear out of living cells with an embedded antenna that could receive radio signals.
McAlpine said that one of 3-D printing’s greatest strengths is its ability to create electronics in complex forms. Unlike traditional electronics manufacturing, which builds circuits in flat assemblies and then stacks them into three dimensions, 3-D printers can create vertical structures as easily as horizontal ones.
“In this case, we had a cube of LEDs,” he said. “Some of the wiring was vertical and some was horizontal.”
To conduct the research, the team built a new type of 3-D printer that McAlpine described as “somewhere between off-the-shelf and really fancy.” Dan Steingart, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the Andlinger Center, helped design and build the new printer, which McAlpine estimated cost in the neighborhood of $20,000.
McAlpine said that he does not envision 3-D printing replacing traditional manufacturing in electronics any time soon; instead, they are complementary technologies with very different strengths. Traditional manufacturing, which uses lithography to create electronic components, is a fast and efficient way to make multiple copies with a very high reliability. Manufacturers are using 3-D printing, which is slow but easy to change and customize, to create molds and patterns for rapid prototyping.
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