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Vivid color 3D printing ink developed by Chinese scientists

According to a report by South China Morning Post, the biocompatible ink was developed without without dyes or pigments and is safe for use in toys that change colour and even food decorations

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According to a report by South China Morning Post, Chinese scientists have developed a vivid 3D printing ink, that does not contain colorants, and is safe to use in toys that change color in relation to body temperature, and food decorations. Although, it is safe to assume that there are currently other applications apart from these.

The researchers from Fudan University in Shanghai, Southeast University in Nanjing, and the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Wenzhou, published their findings in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to the team, the biocompatible ink could potentially be developed for wearable biosensors and bionic skins to help monitor exercise through changing colors. “We believe that this cholesteric liquid crystal ink can shed light on next-generation environmentally friendly 3D photonic printing,” wrote the team. “The ink maintains a cholesteric liquid crystalline state that gives rise to the structural color.”

Unlike conventional 3D color printing ink – which uses dyes or pigments that can fade – this new technology is based on structural coloration, said lead author, Shang Luoran, an assistant professor at the Institutes of Biomedical Sciences at Fudan University. Meaning that the ink produces colors through interactions between light and intrinsic nanostructures.

“Structural coloration, based on the physics of color, is more stable and the color will not easily fade. When the material is illuminated, some of the light source’s wavelengths are reflected, creating what we see as color,” Shang Luoran told the South China Morning Post. “In nature, this is how vibrant and metallic colors form without pigments on the wings of butterflies and insects, chameleons, and some plants.”

Vivid color 3D printing ink developed by Chinese scientists. According to South China Morning Post, the biocompatible ink
Colour variations in one of the 3D printed objects under different temperatures. Image source: Handout

In the paper, the Chinese scientists report that they had successfully used the technology to 3D print objects in different shapes and colors, on flat surfaces such as tinfoil and a laboratory bench. The printable, structural color ink was developed using cholesteric cellulose liquid crystals (CLCs), gelatin, and a hydrogel.

According to the team, CLC has a spiral structure that can reflect light and produce structural colors. When hydroxypropyl cellulose (HPC) molecules are used as the building blocks, the solution forms CLCs that create bright and metallic colors.

The team also incorporated gelatin, which allows the ink to flow during the printing process and form self-supporting structures afterward. As well as a thermal-responsive hydrogel was added so that the printed products can maintain their shape after being exposed to ultraviolet light.

Shang Luoran said that these materials were all readily available and compatible with existing 3D printers, and added that the team aimed to improve the formula to make the ink edible.

“The main constituents of the ink are HPC and gelatin, which are edible, cost-effective, and biocompatible. Thus, further modifying the formulation of the ink is expected, such as replacing the responsive hydrogels with natural derived alternatives,” wrote the team.

The team of Chinese scientists also wants to make it possible to use the vivid color ink on curved surfaces to enable the 3D printing of toy parts and objects with more complicated structures. “For now, objects are printed on flat surfaces,” said Shang Luoran. “We hope the technology can be adapted to curved surfaces, like an apple, in different shapes in the future.”

Shang Luoran also added that, in order to create the biosensors to track exercise, it would be required to add a conductive material to the ink, and that the team would have to do more testing to see if it was viable.

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1,346 polymer and metal AM companies and 143 end-users. Consumer products AM generated $2.6 billion in 2023. Segment expected to grow to $28 billion by 2033 at 26.8% CAGR. This new market study fro...

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