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With the process of 3D printing becoming a reality, the availability of customizable parts found at decreased costs has vastly increased throughout a surplus of applications. Research and development has led to a variety of items, and now a research team rooted at Tohoku University has unveiled the first proton exchange membrane. Serving as a major achievement, this new technology is a main component of fuel cells, batteries and electrochemical capacitors. 


“Energy storage devices whose shapes can be tailored enable entirely new possibilities for applications related, for example, to smart wearable, electronic media devices, and electronic appliances such as drones,” said Kazuyuki lwase, Assistant Professor to Professor Itaru Honma’s group at the Institute of Multidisciplinary Research and Advanced Materials at Tohoku University. “3D printing is a technology that enables the realization of such on-demand structures.”


What is 3D Printing?


Additive manufacturing, known as 3D printing, is the process of utilizing a CAD model and constructing an object that is three-dimensional. It describes the ability to create an item from material that is fastened or solidified through computer control. The material is added together layer by layer, and finalization leads to items such as plastics and powder grains.


Originating in the 1980s as rapid prototyping, 3D printing applications were only used for functional and esthetic prototypes. 2019 saw advancement in the material range of 3D printing. It advanced and increased so greatly that the process was accepted as a technology of industrial production.


The most glaring advantage associated with 3D printing is the ability to create extremely complex items that would not be developed through alternative methods. This includes hollow parts or those with internal structures that provide for weight reduction.


As of 2020, fused deposition modeling ranked as the most common 3D printing application. In this scenario, the continuous filament of a thermoplastic material is utilized for the process.


Developing the Membrane Technology

The current use of 3D printing focuses on the fabrication of parts that are structural by nature, which contribute to functionality overall instead of infusing individual parts with their own capability.


“We developed a fabrication process and synthesized functionalized nano inks that enables the realization of quasi-solid-state energy storage devices based on 3D printing,” said lwase.


Taking into consideration the viscosity of the ink, the research and development team combined inorganic silica nanoparticles with photo-curable resins as well as liquid containing the ability to conduct protons. While previous attempts resulted in inks incapable of 3D printing, the current scenario proved successful. Here, the ratios of ingredients were mixed, and an ink was formulated that could be used in a 3D printer and still retain their properties after intense curing levels.


Upon completion of this step, testing was needed. Team members constructed a printed membrane between carbon electron electrodes. The intent was to engineer a quasi-solid-electrochemical capacitor, which is essential in establishing electronic devices with energy storage and discharge capability.


“As we can freely choose the inorganic materials or resins for curing, we hypothesize that this technique can be applied to various types of quasi-solid-state energy conversion devices,” said lwase. “Compared to conventional fabrication techniques, the ability to 3D print such devices opens up new possibilities for proton-conducting devices, such as shapes that can be adjusted to fit the devices they power or that can be adapted to the personal needs of a patient wearing a smart medical device.”


With any new development, the technology is always sought to be improved. Future plans for this project include improvements in ink formulas. This will enable the ability to accomplish the goal of being able to fully 3D print energy storage devices of shapes greater in complexity. Additionally, the group plans to solicit industrial partners with an equal interest in applying the technique to various potential scenarios.


Nick Vaccaro is a freelance writer and photographer. Besides providing technical writing services, he is an HSE consultant in the oil and gas industry with eight years of experience. He also contributes to Louisiana Sportsman Magazine and follows and photographs American Kennel Club field and herding trials. Nick has a BA in Photojournalism from Loyola University and resides in the New Orleans area. 210-240-7188 [email protected]



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