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Researchers propose extrusion-based metal AM process using bulk metallic glasses

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A team of researchers from Yale University are developing a new approach to metal 3D printing which uses metallic glass filaments to print parts. The new approach, which comes closer to filament-based thermoplastic 3D printing, offers a simpler and cheaper alternative to existing metal 3D printing processes.

The research project, recently published in the journal Materials Today, is spearheaded by Jan Schroers, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at Yale University and for Desktop Metal. Along with his team, Schroers have set out to bring metal 3D printing to a similar level as thermoplastic additive manufacturing, which they say is more advanced. The challenge of working with metals as opposed to thermoplastics, the researchers say, has to do with the difficulty in extruding metal materials.

Working with bulk metallic glasses (BMGs), however, is enabling the research team to develop an extrusion-based metal 3D printing technique.

As Prof. Schroers explains: “We have shown theoretically in this work that we can use a range of other bulk metallic glasses and are working on making the process more practical- and commercially-usable to make 3D printing of metals as easy and practical as the 3D printing of thermoplastics.”

Bulk metallic glasses differ from conventional metals in that they have a “super-cooled liquid region” in their thermodynamic profile. This feature enables the materials to undergo continuous softening upon heating, not unlike what happens with thermoplastics. Therefore, BMGs have been found by the research team to be suitable for printing solid, high-strength metal parts using ambient temperatures comparable to those used in thermoplastic 3D printing.

Bulk metallic glasses

In the research, the team is primarily working with a BMG made from zirconium, titanium, copper, nickel and beryllium (Zr44Ti11Cu10Ni10Be25), which is a common and well-characterized material. The team used amorphous rods of 1 millimeter (mm) diameter and of 700mm length which were extruded at a temperature of 460 degrees Celsius with a force of 10 to 1,000 Newtons. The BMG material was extruded through a 0.5 mm nozzle onto a 400°C stainless steel mesh, which prevents crystallization for up to a day.

This novel method, though still in its research phase, has the potential to drastically simplify metal 3D printing. In terms of material properties, metal parts printed from BMGs have reportedly demonstrated high strength, good elasticity as well as high fracture and high corrosion resistance.

Notably, though it is not likely that this metal 3D printing method will replace powder-based AM processes, it could provide a solution for manufacturers that turn for thermoplastics for the ease-of-printing. In terms of accessibility, the extrusion-based metal AM technique requires far less equipment, safety measures (because no powders are in use) and costs than powder-based systems.

At this point though, it is unclear how widespread the new metal AM process will become. As Prof. Schroers said: “In order to widely use BMG 3D printing, practical BMG feedstock available for a broad range of BMGs has to be made available. To use the fused filament fabrication commercially, layer-to-layer bonding has to be more reliable and consistent.”

Clearly, there is still some work to be done, but the prospects of this new BMG-based process are fascinating to say the least.

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