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University of Michigan researchers 3D print helical nanostructures

Offering a simpler, cheaper way to rapidly produce a material essential for biomedical and optical devices

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According to the University of Michigan, a new fabrication process for helical metal nanoparticles is offering a simpler, cheaper way to rapidly produce a material essential for biomedical and optical devices.

“One of our motivators is to drastically simplify manufacturing of complex materials that represent bottlenecks in many current technologies,” said Nicholas Kotov, the Irving Langmuir Distinguished University Professor of Chemical Sciences and Engineering at the University of Michigan, and co-corresponding author of the study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Chiral surfaces – meaning the surface lacks mirror symmetry – that have the ability to bend light at the nanoscale are in high demand. The new study demonstrates a way to make them by 3D printing ‘forests’ of nanoscale helices. Aligning the helices’ axes with a light beam creates strong optical rotation – enabling chirality to be harnessed in health and information technologies, for which chirality is common.

Chiral surfaces from plasmonic metals are even more desirable because they can produce a large family of very sensitive biodetectors. For example, they can detect specific biomolecules – produced by dangerous drug-resistant bacteria, mutated proteins, or DNA – which can aid the development of targeted therapeutics. These materials also offer the potential to advance information technologies, creating larger data storage capacities and faster processing speeds by harnessing the interaction of light with electronic systems (i.e., fiber optic cables).

University of Michigan researchers 3D print helical nanostructures - producing a material essential for biomedical and optical devices.
Scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of nanohelicoids formed using left helical light and right helical light respectively. Credit: Kim et al. 2024.

Although these special 3D-structured surfaces from stand-up helices are much needed, the traditional methods to make them are complex, expensive, and create a lot of waste. Most commonly these materials are made using highly specialized hardware – such as two-photon 3D lithography or ion/electron beam-induced deposition – only available in a few high-end facilities. Although accurate, these methods involve time-consuming, multi-step processing at low-pressure or high-temperature conditions.

3D printing has been suggested as an alternative, but, according to the researchers, existing 3D printing technologies do not allow nanoscale resolution. As a solution, the University of Michigan research team developed a method that uses helical light beams to produce nanoscale helices with specific handedness and pitch.

“Centimeter-scale chiral plasmonic surfaces can be produced within minutes using inexpensive medium-power lasers. It was amazing to see how fast these helical forests grow,” said Kotov. The 3D printing of helical structures by helical light is based on the light-to-matter chirality transfer discovered at the University of Michigan about 10 years ago.

Single-step, mask-free, direct-write printing from aqueous solutions of silver salt provides an alternative to nanolithography while advancing additive manufacturing. The processing simplicity, high polarization rotation, and fine spatial resolution of light-driven printing of helices from metal are expected to greatly accelerate the preparation of complex nanoscale architecture for the next generation of optical chips.

This work was funded by the US Department of Defense Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship for Nicholas Kotov (ONR N000141812876), the US Office of Naval Research (HQ00342010033; N00014-20-1-2479), the US Air Force Office for Scientific Research (AFOSR FA9550-20-1-0265), and the National Science Foundation (CMMI- 1463474; NSF 2243104; CHE-1807676).

Additional University of Michigan co-authors include Connor McGlothin, Minjeong Cha, Zechariah J. Pfaffenberger, Emine Sumeyra Turali Emre, Wonjin Choi, Sanghoon Kim, and Julie S. Biteen.

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Edward Wakefield

Edward is a freelance writer and additive manufacturing enthusiast looking to make AM more accessible and understandable.

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