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3D Printing Liquid Metal

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted July 11, 2013

One of my favorite movies of all-time is The Abyss, where Ed Harris leads an underwater search and rescue team deep into the ocean to locate a sunken ship. While they’re down there, they get a little more than they bargained for when they get a scare from a close encounter of the third kind.

And when I learned about what a research team at North Carolina State University (NCSU) had done, my mind went right back to that classic film. There was no extraterrestrial encounter here, but what they were doing was definitely out of this world. And it looked like it, too.

3D printing is supposed to be the next big wave in the technology revolution. Every industry is taking some kind of look into it – your automobiles, computers, weaponry – and they’ve all run into one snag along the way: limitations of plastic.

That’s what is being used currently as a printing material.

But the team at NCSU may be on the verge of a major breakthrough. The researchers have demonstrated a method for 3D printing that incorporates the use of liquid. And when I saw it being performed, that’s what immediately drew my mind to The Abyss:


The NCSU printer exudes a liquid metal to create a free-standing structure that is able to retain its shape as it forms a coat, or what is being called a “passive oxide skin,” around the surface as the liquid metal is exposed to air. And all this happens at room temperature, so there’s absolutely no need to make any kind of temperature adjustments.

With a conventional 3D printer, plastics can easily be transformed and are pliable with very little heat, but plastics aren’t reliable under certain pressures. If you want to use metal – something stronger and more meaningful in real world applications – it requires a lot more heat to reshape and mold.

This is what researchers at NCSU, led by Michael Dickey, have addressed. They use a special metal alloy that is already in liquid state and at room temperature. It is composed of a mixture of 75 percent eutectic gallium alloy and 25 percent indium, as Gizmodo reports.

When the liquid is extracted or released into the open air, that’s when the magic happens: a razor-thin layer of gallium oxide forms or what is referred to as the passive oxide skin. And that is what sets it apart from other 3D printing forms – it stands alone and has taken shape, and it is much stronger than any plastic. This the part of the process could quite possibly revolutionize manufacturing and technology as a whole.

The really neat part about the gallium oxide is that it not only makes the structure pliable but it also has the ability to conduct electricity. This is where real world application in the form of wires and other electronic components comes in.


The one problem this new 3D liquid metal printer does present is that during the replication process, it requires an exact amount of pressure to be applied to the liquid so that the free forming structure doesn’t lose its shape and collapse.

But the potential is there, and at the very least, it can simplify the creation of manufactured prototypes. It brings mankind one step closer to producing anything it wants at the push of a button.

Michael Dickey, head of the research team and Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at NCSU, thinks it could be used to add metal wiring to plastic objects created from standard 3D printing. The layers would quickly cool, and the end product would be non-conductive electronic structures.

The Next Step

And it’s only the beginning. For now, the new 3D printing concept is still on the ground floor, and it comes at a premium – the NCSU liquid metal alloy is 100 times more expensive than the plastics that are currently being applied in 3D print making. But the technology is there.

Just like in The Abyss, it’s important to open your mind to what is really possible. This technology could change the world, one wire at a time. And who knows where that could lead?

In the end, there’s really nothing to be afraid of – unless you’re looking at that price tag.

But that will all change with time.


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