Research: 3D-Printing for Fundamental Science

2018-04-11

Researchers at Uppsala University use additive manufacturing for innovative lab solutions.

Fig. 1: Sample holder for electrical resistivity measurements (front) demonstrating that 3D-printing is not only helpful for prototyping (background).
3D-printed prototype of a thermal anchor
before fabrication in copper for cryogenic use.
Image: Merlin Pohlit

Advancements in fundamental science originate in creative ideas and insightful postulates while they rest on reliable experimental verification. For the latter - as the word suggests - experimentation and trial in the lab is key. Often setting up challenging experiments to validate novel ideas pushes the boundaries of the state of the art leading to technological progress. Sometimes however, the interplay between basic science and applied technology can work in the opposite way, when new techniques become readily available at a relatively low cost on the consumer market, which lend themselves to be utilised in the lab.


Recently, Additive Manufacturing – commonly known as 3D-printing – became such a widespread technology empowering users at home, as well as in the lab, to fabricate plastic objects limited only by their drawing skills and imagination.

"Every experimental physics department should consider the use of 3D-printers. This emergent technology gives researchers easy access to rapid prototyping and very functional individual lab solutions."  says Merlin Pohlit, postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Uppsala University.

3D-printing allowed Merlin Pohlit to design and print prototypes of several parts, needed for a custom build sample stage of a cryostat, which will be used for electronic transport measurements at low temperatures (see Fig. 1). In such a system, the layout of the electric wiring has to be realised in a very limited space, while considering the heat conductance so that the sample can be cooled to temperatures below 10 Kelvin (approx. -263 oC). The ability to quickly build relatively cheap prototypes proved to be extremely helpful to get the design right before issuing an expensive fabrication in metal.

However, 3D-printing is not limited to prototyping parts before conventional machining as today’s printers are sufficiently accurate that printed parts can be used directly for experiments. Considering a slight shrinkage of the printed material, it is possible to print holes and working screw threads with the required dimensions. This allows for manufacturing functional components like the printed sample holder for resistivity measurements, with press fitted gold contacts, as shown in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2: Sample holder for electrical resistivity measurements (front) demonstrating that 3D-printing is not only helpful for prototyping (background).
Sample holder for electrical resistivity measurements (front) demonstrating that 3D-printing
is not only helpful for prototyping (background). ​Image: Merlin Pohlit

"I foresee 3D-printing widely used in academic education and research labs around the world, where single tailored parts are needed on a regular basis. However, for their scientific use often specific properties, like the vacuum compatibility of a material, are required. Therefore, I expect that 3D-printed parts will be used more and more frequently in experiments, as soon as more of these properties become better known. Yet, there is another factor despite being very useful: It is plain fun to arrive in the lab in the morning and see your sketched ideas became a printed reality, just while you were sleeping." says Merlin Pohlit.

Uppsala University was among the first research facilities incorporating 3D-printing into the lab environment and so far, it was a very fruitful endeavour. While a project successfully developed printable materials for application in neutron science,[1] the scientific challenges resulted in the development of improved printer heads[2] and more durable printer nozzles fabricated from ruby, which are now commercially available.[3] Things have come full circle by improving the tool for the next generation of experiments to come.

For a thorough discussion of novel concepts regarding 3D printing using plastic materials and its scientific use, the interested reader is referred to the article by Anders et al., which is available as an Open Access article.[4]

[1] A. Olsson and A. R. Rennie, Boron carbide composite apertures for small-angle neutron scattering made by three-dimensional printing, Journal of Applied Crystallography 49, 696-699, 2016.
doi: 10.1107/s1600576716000534

[2] Product video and its development.

[3] http://olssonruby.com

[4] A. Olsson and M. S. Hellsing and A. R. Rennie, New possibilities using additive manufacturing with materials that are difficult to process and with complex structures, Physica Scripta 92, 053002, 2017. doi: 10.1088/1402-4896/aa694e