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MIT researchers 3D print solenoid electromagnets

The three-dimensional solenoids could enable easier and more cost effective production of electronics

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MIT researchers have made significant strides towards building electronic devices, such as dialysis machines, using solely 3D printing technology. This innovation has the potential to drastically cut costs, minimize manufacturing waste, and provide easier access to medical devices for those in remote or resource-limited areas. At the forefront of overcoming the challenges associated with fully 3D printed electronics, the team has successfully demonstrated the creation of fully 3D printed, three-dimensional solenoids (electromagnets formed by a coil of wire wrapped around a magnetic core), a critical component in a wide array of electronic devices ranging from medical equipment to household appliances.

The researchers modified a multi-material 3D printer so it could print compact, magnetic-cored solenoids in one step – eliminating defects that might be introduced during post-assembly processes. This customized printer, which could utilize higher-performing materials than typical commercial printers, enabled the researchers to produce solenoids that could withstand twice as much electric current and generate a magnetic field that was 3x larger than other 3D printed devices.

In addition to making electronics cheaper on Earth, this printing hardware could be particularly useful in space exploration. according to says Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, a principal research scientist in MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories (MTL) and the senior author of a new paper on the 3D printed solenoids that appears in the journal Virtual and Physical Prototyping. For example, instead of shipping replacement electronic parts to a base on Mars, which could take years and cost millions of dollars, one could send a signal containing files for the 3D printer.

“There is no reason to make capable hardware in only a few centers of manufacturing when the need is global. Instead of trying to ship hardware all over the world, can we empower people in distant places to make it themselves? Additive manufacturing can play a tremendous role in terms of democratizing these technologies,” said Velásquez-García, who is joined on the paper by lead author Jorge Cañada, an electrical engineering and computer science graduate student; and Hyeonseok Kim, a mechanical engineering graduate student.

MIT researchers 3D print solenoid electromagnets - enable easier and more cost effective production of electronics.
Source: MIT.

Advantages of AM

A solenoid generates a magnetic field when an electrical current is passed through it. When someone rings a doorbell, for instance, electric current flows through a solenoid, which generates a magnetic field that moves an iron rod so it strikes a chime. Integrating solenoids onto electrical circuits manufactured in a clean room poses significant challenges, as they have very different form factors and are made using incompatible processes that require post-assembly. Consequently, researchers have investigated making solenoids utilizing many of the same processes that make semiconductor chips, but these techniques limit the size and shape of solenoids, which hampers performance.

With AM, one can produce devices that are practically any size and shape. However, this presents its own challenges, since making a solenoid involves coiling thin layers made from multiple materials that may not all be compatible with one machine. To overcome these challenges, the researchers needed to modify a commercial extrusion 3D printer.

“Some people in the field look down on them because they are simple and don’t have a lot of bells and whistles, but extrusion is one of very few methods that allows you to do multi-material, monolithic printing,” said Velásquez-García.

The solenoids are produced by precisely layering three different materials – a dielectric material that serves as an insulator, a conductive material that forms the electric coil, and a soft magnetic material that makes up the core.

The team selected a printer with four nozzles – one dedicated to each material to prevent cross-contamination. They used two soft magnetic materials – one based on a biodegradable thermoplastic and the other based on nylon.

MIT researchers 3D print solenoid electromagnets - enable easier and more cost effective production of electronics.
Source: MIT.

Pellet printing

The team retrofitted the printer so one nozzle could extrude pellets, rather than filament. The soft magnetic nylon, which is made from a pliable polymer studded with metallic microparticles, is virtually impossible to produce as a filament. Yet, this nylon material offers far better performance than filament-based alternatives.

Using the conductive material also posed challenges, since it would start melting and jam the nozzle. The researchers found that adding ventilation to cool the material prevented this. They also built a new spool holder for the conductive filament that was closer to the nozzle – reducing friction that could damage the thin strands.

Even with the team’s modifications, the customized hardware cost about $4,000, so this technique could be employed by others at a lower cost than other approaches, according to Velásquez-García.

The modified hardware prints a US quarter-sized solenoid as a spiral by layering material around the soft magnetic core, with thicker conductive layers separated by thin insulating layers. Precisely controlling the process is paramount because each material prints at a different temperature. Depositing one on top of another at the wrong time might cause the materials to smear. The solenoids achieved higher performance than other 3D printed devices because the machine could print with a more effective soft magnetic material.

The printing method enabled the MIT researchers to build a three-dimensional device comprising eight layers, with coils of conductive and insulating material stacked around the core like a spiral staircase. Multiple layers increase the number of coils in the solenoid, which improves the amplification of the magnetic field.

Due to the added precision of the modified printer, they could make solenoids about 33% smaller than other 3D printed versions. More coils in a smaller area also boosts amplification.

“We were not the first people to be able to make inductors that are 3D printed, but we were the first ones to make them three-dimensional, and that greatly amplifies the kinds of values you can generate. And that translates into being able to satisfy a wider range of applications,” said Velásquez-García.

For instance, while these solenoids can’t generate as much magnetic field as those made with traditional fabrication techniques, they could be used as power convertors in small sensors or actuators in soft robots.

In order to enhance the performance of the solenoids moving forward, the MIT researchers are exploring alternate materials that may have more suitable properties. They are also exploring additional modifications that could more precisely control the temperature at which each material is deposited – reducing defects.

This work is funded by Empiriko Corporation.

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Edward Wakefield

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