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New 3D printing technology promises improved polymer membrane production

"We want to bridge the fundamental chemistry and materials science that we do with the engineering and rapid design iterations that the 3-D printing industry is really good at," researcher Michael Hickner said.

By Brooks Hays
Three examples of the patterned membranes produced using the new 3D printing technique. Photo by Hickner Group/Penn State
Three examples of the patterned membranes produced using the new 3D printing technique. Photo by Hickner Group/Penn State

STATE COLLEGE, Pa., June 2 (UPI) -- Researchers at Penn State University have developed a new 3D printing technique for polymer membrane production.

When 2D polymer membranes are adorned with 3D etchings, they take on a range of potentially useful hydrodynamic properties. Many of these properties could enhance the role of ion exchange membranes in devices like fuel cells, batteries or water purification systems.

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Current methods for 3D etched polymer membranes are labor intensive and expensive, which isn't conducive to experimentation.

"We thought if we could use 3-D printing to fabricate our custom-synthesized ion exchange membranes, we could make any sort of pattern and we could make it quickly," Michael Hickner, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Penn State, said in a news release.

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Hickner and his research partners developed a new 3D printing technique that builds on a light-based strategy called stereolithography. The scientists concocted a mixture of ionic polymers that are sensitive to light. An initial layer is laid out and exposed to light to harden. A second layer is then selectively exposed to light and hardened to create a 3D pattern.

Adding 3D etching in this manner was able to boost the conductivity of the ion exchange membranes by as much as three-fold.

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"Membranes act like a resistor in a battery or fuel cell," Hickner explained. "If you can lower the resistance by a factor of two or three, you've really got something useful."

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Hickney and his colleagues were able to develop a model that predicts which patterns will reduce resistance, and with the new 3D printing technology, testing new design iterations is much easier.

"We want to bridge the fundamental chemistry and materials science that we do with the engineering and rapid design iterations that the 3-D printing industry is really good at," Hickner concluded.

The research was published this week in the journal Applied Materials and Interfaces.

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