U.S. Department of Energy researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have found a way to successfully 3D print aerospace grade carbon fiber composites that has never been done before.

The current generation of carbon fiber composites — while stiff, strong, and light —are limited in their broader application by their high cost of manufacture, variable reliability in service, and limited shapes in the parts that can be produced.

But through a modified form of additive manufacturing (3D printing) called “direct ink writing,” researchers can complete the process, cure the material, and lock it into shape to get the final mechanical properties. During direct ink writing, a small nozzle extrudes ink and lays it down precisely within a 3D build space to construct a complete shape.

This process is unique because it’s an additive process that allows researchers to ‘write’ using carbon fiber-containing inks in complex shapes, in real time, without the limitations of traditional manufacturing technologies. It also allows researchers to control fiber alignment in a 3D printed part.

Computational Modeling

A team of engineers perform the computational modeling on LLNL supercomputers, using large scale computer simulations of the 3D printing process to optimize how carbon fiber is printed. This allows researchers to incorporate carbon fiber in a 3D structure and make a complex shape.

Future applications could include high performance airplane wings, insulating satellite components so they don’t need to be rotated in space, and creating wearables that can draw heat from the body.

This technology also has the potential to be a disruptive, offering new solutions to existing materials design problems, which are not accessible with conventional materials or methods. For example, if complex shapes were made out of carbon fiber materials, and were more widely available, objects could be lighter and stronger. This could translate to lighter cars or wind turbines built using carbon fiber instead of steel.

The technology has the potential to allow researchers to manufacture a greater range of smart, structural components with improved strength, stiffness, and reduced weight. Until now, they have been made of metals using traditional fabrication methods.

Researchers at LLNL believe this is only the first step in developing this technology. Jim Lewicki, a principal investigator on the project, said, “Right now it’s developmental. We’re actively seeking commercial partnerships to help us scale up the technology.”

Lewicki said he would like to see parallelization of the process to allow larger, more complex parts to be built within reasonable timeframes. This can be achieved through a combination of print heads and more advanced implementation of real-time curing of inks during the printing process. If industrial partnerships are forged, these goals can be expected to be met within a 3- to 5-year timeframe.

Currently, researchers are in discussion with commercial, aerospace, and defense partners to advance the development of the technology.