Boley garners $2.23 million defense grant

By Patrick L. Kennedy

It takes eight hours for Assistant Professor William Boley (ME, MSE) and his team to test a material that’s been 3D-printed from a combination of “inks” (such as liquid metals, polymers, and solvents). Eight hours—and he’s a materials synthesis expert with a state-of-the-art lab. But with some new equipment, and some bold ideas, Boley believes he can slash that time to one hour—and perhaps even down to a matter of minutes, if not less. He might even be able to assess the material while he’s printing it.

That’s why the U.S Department of Defense has awarded Boley $2.23 million under the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (DURIP). The grant will enable Boley to accelerate the discovery and fabrication of advanced 3D printing inks.

Will Boley (ME, MSE) and his soon-to-be-upgraded additive manufacturing equipment.

Three-dimensional (3D) printing—also known as additive manufacturing—carries enormous potential. But to make the highly complex, multifunctional materials and systems of the future—better robotic and optoelectronic devices, sensors, actuators, living materials, wearables and implantables—the technology needs to take a giant leap in efficiency, Boley says.

While pushing 3D printing technology to its limits, Boley and colleagues have been crafting some extremely complex, multi-ingredient inks. “Our least complex ink could have three different components,” Boley says. “One of our more complicated inks has seven different ingredients.”

For example, Boley’s team created an ink that featured liquid metal droplets dispersed in a stretchable polymer (or elastomer) solution. The target property there was high electrical conductivity in a rubbery, flexible material, which might be useful in a soft robotic device.

Boley and his student researchers have succeeded in developing several such advanced inks, but “we arrived at these concentrations a bit by trial and error,” he says. After printing a structure, the researchers had to bring it to other labs to test it for the target properties.

But with the new high-tech scanners and custom printers that Boley is purchasing with the DURIP funds, and with his unique vision for setting up that equipment, “We can do all that in-house,” Boley says. “We can produce different ink compositions and characterize them at the same time, all in one space.”

In other words, to see whether the materials are meeting their goals, Boley’s team will be assessing the materials as they print them, using a novel integration of chemical mapping scanners. “We can really use all those knobs that we have available to us to tailor our compositions on the fly,” says Boley.

Moreover, the new gear will help Boley build his own array of unique printheads, enabling the team to print structures at submicron scale, making for even more complex—and effective—materials.

Top: A complex material printed by Boley’s student Javier M. Morales Ferrer. Photographs by Isabella Bachman