3d printers

How magnets and 3D printers can make materials for hypersonic aircraft

Randall Erbe is a bit of a ceramist, but instead of a potter’s wheel, he uses magnets and a 3D printer to do his work. The end result is a ceramic material that can withstand extreme heat with applications ranging from circuit boards to hypersonic aircraft.

“The 3D printer allows us to create complex geometric structures that we could not achieve with conventional manufacturing,” says Erb, associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and director of the DAPS Laboratory to North-east. “And the magnetic force we apply to the material during the 3D printing process orients the particles optimally.”

MSc student Jason Hoffman-Bice works with researchers in the Directed Particle and Suspension Assembly Laboratory at the Egan Research Center. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Imagine hovering a large magnet over a disorganized group of paperclips. If the magnet is strong enough, the paperclips will unravel and stand up in the direction of the magnet. Now imagine this same process on a microscopic scale. The magnetic field used by Erb during the 3D printing process aligns and orients the particles in the ceramic material, giving the final product greater durability than if the particles had been irregularly oriented or oriented in a different direction.

To print these complex geometric structures, Erb and his team mix ceramic powder with a type of light-sensitive resin. Then they project light in the form of the desired product onto the ceramic-resin mixture. Wherever the light shines, the mixture is hardened and hardened. As the structure hardens, the 3D printer slowly adds more layers until the product is complete.

Researchers work in the Directed Particle and Suspension Assembly Laboratory at the Egan Research Center. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“Ceramic is a good material for anything that deals with high heat,” Erb says. “It’s not conductive like metal, so it’s good for something like a circuit board. Ceramic wouldn’t short out the circuit board, for example.

The DAPS lab was recently nominated for the 2021 3D Printing Industry Award, in part because of the lab’s unique ability to control materials at the microscopic scale. Vote ends October 20 and the winner will be announced the following day.

Master’s student Evan Toth works with researchers in the Directed Particle and Suspension Assembly Laboratory. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

In addition to their accomplishments in micromaterials, Erb also believes his lab has an edge over other competitors due to the success the DAPS lab has had with industrial partners in the past. “We’re app-driven and we’ve created spin-off companies, like Fortify, which is a Boston-based 3D printing company,” he says.

There is no monetary prize for the contest, but Erb says winning would bring well-deserved notoriety to the lab and the university. “The award would highlight the importance of our research, which brings microscale design to 3D printing,” he says. “And to Northeastern as a whole, which is a leader in 3D printing in general.”

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