Dr. Simon Leigh, University of Warwick School of Engineering

It's all about the materials. Aficionados, designers, artists and hobbyists want new materials, and they want them now.

One of the Holy Grail pieces of the puzzle for 3D printing across the board is technology and the necessary materials to enable printing of functional elements. Big on the wish list? Printed electronic sensors and wiring capability.

According to a group of materials researchers, here comes a "formulation of simple conductive thermoplastic composite." They're calling it Carbomorph and they say it delivers on the dream of conductive sensing products straight out of the printer.

The University of Warwick researchers say Carbomorph is a simple and inexpensive plastic composite which can be used to produce electronic devices.

Carbomorph test

Carbomorph allows designers to lay down or embed electronic tracks and sensors, which can then be connected to a simple Arduino board. At this point, the researchers have managed to 3D print objects with embedded flex sensors and touch-sensitive areas. The focus of future efforts will be printing more complex structures and electronic components, which might include wires and cables within a piece.

Led by Dr Simon Leigh at the School of Engineering, University of Warwick, the project has some groundbreaking goals.

"Seeing the complex and intricate models of devices such as mobile phones or television remote controls that can be produced with 3D printing is great," Leigh said. "But... they are invariably models that don't function."

Leigh says that the technology could "revolutionize the way we produce the world around us." He envisions the material's uses in products as far flung as personal electronics and tableware, and adds that he believes the material has the potential to reduce what he calls "electronic waste."

"I can see this technology having a major impact in the educational sector," Leigh said. "Allowing the next generation of young engineers to get hands-on experience using advanced manufacturing technology."

Leigh says these printed sensors can be monitored using existing, open-source electronics and free programming libraries. An additional benefit of his material, he says, is that products can be created and printed out without the use of conductive glues or paints.

The developers utilized a Bits from Bytes BFB3000 3D printer to produce their examples of functional sensors by either using them in a standalone fashion or embedding them as parts of 3D printed structures.

Carbomorph sensor

According to the researchers, their printed sensors use a simple interface and don't require particularly complicated electronic circuits or amplification. In their testing and experiments, the sensors were monitored using existing open-source electronics and free programming libraries, and the finished products were created with an entirely stock printer.

Leigh said that the material is "an amorphous form of carbon, produced from the incomplete combustion of heavy petroleum products such as FCC tar, coal tar, ethylene cracking tar and a small amount from vegetable oil," making it readily available and inexpensive. He added that amorphous CB has been demonstrated to be a good filler material in conductive polymer composites and is superior to copper as copper can oxidize and become non-conductive.

3D printing is catching on within the medical community like wildfire. Everything from 3D printed spinal inserts to entire printable organs like kidneys are in the works.

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