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Remotely Curving 2D Plastic Sheets into 3D Structures Using Light

Published on 2017-03-30. Author : SpecialChem

Remotely Control Curvature of Plastics via Light
Remotely Control Curvature of Plastics via Light
Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a technique that uses light to get two-dimensional (2D) plastic sheets to curve into three-dimensional (3D) structures, such as spheres, tubes or bowls.

The advance builds on earlier work by the same research team, which focused on self-folding 3D structures. The key advance here is that rather than having the plastic fold along sharp lines – into polygonal shapes such as cubes or pyramids – the plastics bend and curve.

Self-molding 3D Structures


Researchers Michael Dickey, a professor of chemical and bio-molecular engineering at NC State, and Jan Genzer, the S. Frank and Doris Culberson Distinguished Professor in the same department, were early leaders in the field of self-folding 3D structures. In their landmark 2011 paper, the researchers outlined a technique in which a conventional inkjet printer is used to print bold black lines onto a pre-strained plastic sheet. The plastic sheet was then cut into a desired pattern and placed under an infrared light, such as a heat lamp.
  • The printed lines absorbed more energy from the infrared light than the rest of the material, causing the plastic to heat and contract – creating a hinge that folded the sheets into 3D shapes. 
  • By varying the width of the printed lines, or hinges, the researchers were able to change how far – and how quickly – each hinge folds. 
  • The technique is compatible with commercial printing techniques, such as screen printing, roll-to-roll printing, and inkjet printing, that are inexpensive and high-throughput but inherently 2D.

But now they’re using a similar approach to accomplish a very different result.

Dickey, co-corresponding author of a paper on the self-curving plastics, said:
“By controlling the number of lines and the distribution of ink on the surface of the material, we can produce any number of curved shapes. All of the shapes use the same amount of ink; it’s simply a matter of where the ink is applied on the plastic.”

Amber Hubbard, a Ph.D student at NC State and co-lead author of the paper, said:
“Our work was inspired by nature, because natural shapes rarely incorporate crisp folds, instead opting for curvature. And we found that, in order to make functional objects, we often needed to use a combination of curved and folded shapes.”

“Other researchers have developed techniques for creating self-curving materials, but they did this using soft materials, such as hydrogels. Our work is the first attempt to accomplish the same using thermoplastics – which are stronger and stiffer than the soft materials. That makes them more attractive for use in performing some practical actions, such as gripping an object.”

Russell Mailen, a Ph.D student at NC State and co-lead author of the paper, said:
“The materials we’re working with also hold their shape, even after the light is removed. That’s an advantage, because soft materials change shape only when exposed to a solvent, and once they are removed from the solvent they lose their shape.”

Computational Model


The researchers have also developed a computational model that can be used to predict the 3D shape that will be produced by any given printing pattern.

Genzer, co-corresponding author, stated:
“One of our goals is to fine-tune this model, which Mailen developed. Ultimately, we’d like to be able to input a desired 3-D shape into the model and have it create a pattern that we can print and produce.”

About North Carolina State University


North Carolina State University is a public research university located in Raleigh, North Carolina, United States. It is part of the University of North Carolina system and is a land, sea, and space grant institution. At NC State, ideas become solutions. NC State unites bold thought with purposeful action and use the results to overcome society’s grand challenges.

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Source: North Carolina State University
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