Graphene is a single-atomic layer of carbon atoms. Organized in a hexagonal lattice, it is considered a “wonder material” that contains an array of properties unparalleled in other structures and materials. For example, it is an excellent conductor with extreme properties in flexibility and transparency. The greatest catch is that graphene is 7.5 times lighter than air.

By integrating graphene into nanocomposite materials, the traditional materials used in 3D printing can be greatly improved. This includes plastics. Even though graphene is 12% lighter than the second lightest material in the world, when used in 3D printing, it can make the material “mechanically stronger and with improved thermal and electrical conductivity,” according to Graphene-Info.

Companies in various industries are beginning to engage in research and development efforts pertaining to 3D printing with graphene because of its unique applicability to electronics, energy storage, drug delivery, and composite materials development. These companies are now eligible for R&D Tax Credits.

The Research & Development Tax Credit

Enacted in 1981, the federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13 percent of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:

  • New or improved products, processes, or software
  • Technological in nature
  • Elimination of uncertainty
  • Process of experimentation

Eligible costs include employee wages, cost of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses, and costs associated with developing a patent. On December 18, 2015 President Obama signed the bill making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum Tax and startup businesses can utilize the credit against $250,000 per year in payroll taxes.

What is Graphene Aerogel?

Aerogels are low-density materials with a sponge-like structure. It is often coined “frozen smoke because it looks like gas, has its weight and density, but is deceptive in that it is actually a solid. Unlike typical aerogels, graphene aerogels contain properties of compressibility and conductivity. Its uniqueness makes it the least dense solid on Earth. To put it into perspective, a graphene aerogel can be balanced on top of a small plant’s leaves. That is why researchers are keen on finding ways to develop graphene aerogels for shock dampers, solid-state batteries, and catalysts.

To create a graphene aerogel, a scientist freeze-dries layers of graphene and stacks them into a 3D structure. Unfortunately, the basic process to 3D print other aerogels cannot be used to print graphene aerogel because it has a more delicate structure. Therefore, scientists mix graphene oxide with water and place it on a surface before cooling it to -25 degrees Celsius. This new process helps researchers immediately freeze individual layers of graphene and stack them into a 3D aerogel.

It is anticipated that graphene aerogel’s elasticity and low density make it an ideal absorbent for environmental clean-ups, such as oil spills. It may also be useful to store and transfer energy by incorporating it in lighter, higher-energy-density batteries, according to Graphene-info.com. In May 2017, Researchers at the Chinese Hubei University announced a graphene aerogel film that can create water vapor at room temperature by converting sunlight into heat. Furthermore, scientists at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology created a graphene oxide-based thermoacoustic speaker that produces sound through rapid heating and cooling of the material instead of vibrations.

Graphene 3D Lab Inc.

Graphene 3D Lab Inc. is a world leader in developing, manufacturing, and marketing graphene, 2D crystals, and nanomaterial composites. The company offers over 100 graphene products. Its 3D printing is centered on commercializing 3D printing technology with graphene-infused polymer filaments.  All the company’s efforts are geared towards the potential of printing entire devices and electronics with graphene, including their structures and aesthetics.

Graphene 3D Lab is planning to create 3D printed batteries derived from graphene. It is anticipated that such batteries would outperform current commercial batteries and be moldable in shape and size to the requirements of specific, individual devices. In October 2014, the company released a prototype battery and its efforts are continuous.

Release of the Graphene-HIPS 3D Printing Filament

Graphene 3D Lab Inc. recently released a new product called the Graphene-HIPS 3D Printing Filament. This filament is intended for high performance 3D printing. Unlike other materials, this one has an outstanding layer of adhesion, toughness, and impact resistance. Graphene 3D Lab explained that this material “is well-suited for printing precise functional components for engineering applications. Since the material is both temperature and weather resistant, it is also an ideal material for outdoor projects.” In comparison to other materials, this product is reasonably priced, at $29.99 per 400g spool. It is affordable for all experts, students, and even hobbyists to 3D print with graphene.  

Local Motors

In March 2015, Local Motors announced its experimentation efforts in 3D printing vehicles with graphene-reinforced materials. It plans to open microfactories around the U.S. with the intention of producing complete vehicles in 12 hours. These vehicles would be made by reinforcing extruded 3D printed materials with graphene. Local Motors spends much of its research on advancing the use of nanomaterials, such as graphene, in 3D printed vehicles. It collaborated with South Korean Standard Graphene, a leader in graphene and battery technology, and also works in testing graphene products with University of Tennessee.

The company intends to improve the carbon fiber and ABS plastic composite used for printing the vehicles and battery cell technology. Its research indicates that even a slight introduction of 2% of the total mass of graphene has a profound impact of increasing stiffness and strength of the vehicle’s structure.

IBM’s Graphene Computer Chip

In 2014, IBM began investigating 3D printing a computer chip with graphene. It succeeded in building the most advanced graphene-based chip in the world. It yields performance metrics at a rate 10,000 times better than previous graphene ICs. The reason IBM was successful in this procedure was because it built the passive components of a chip first and then deposited a layer of graphene at the end of the process to complete the transistor fabrication. IBM also has a nano-printer that it intends to use in research and development of graphene as a transistor material. In fact, the microscopic 3D printer is “capable of writing nanometer resolution patterns into a soft polymer, which can be subsequently transferred to silicon…or graphene substrates.”

University Efforts

MIT

MIT recently discovered that it can 3D print objects with graphene to have 10 times the strength of steel but be lighter than air. These unique characteristics make it ideal for structural development that requires great strength but being lightweight. The university suggests graphene can be utilized to produce lightweight products for planes, cars, buildings, and filtration devices. Graphene’s traditional 2D structure would not be advantageous on its own, however researchers at MIT created a new structure that employs a multi-material 3D printer. This way, the new graphene structure has a sponge-like configuration with 5% density. Then, the team uses heat and pressure to compress graphene flakes into a strong and stable structure with a surface area stronger than any other that is proportional to its volume concentration.

Northwestern University

Northwestern researchers found that if you create a defective single-layer of graphene, it has a “proton-selective membrane that could lead to improved fuel cells.” A natural defect in graphene, in which a carbon atom is missing, triggers a chemical action in which protons from water on one side of the membrane move to the other side in seconds. Because graphene is so thin, protons move quickly. On the other hand, in conventional membranes, it can take several minutes for protons to travel through hundreds of nanometer-thick membranes.

Beginning in May 2015, researchers created a method to print 3D structures that employ graphene nanoflakes. By automating the process, it is possible for every graphene piece to quickly come out uniform, perfect, less expensive, and more efficient. This has the potential to create scaffolds and electronic or medical applications. 3D printing of graphene scaffolds can change tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. The combination of graphene with biocompatible elastomer and evaporating solvents makes it possible to have material electrical conductivity and mechanical strength while maintaining flexibility. Furthermore, because it holds its shape, graphene can be used to build larger and better-defined objects.

The team at Northwestern found graphene could be used in medical applications after they injected a scaffold with stem cells and saw they immediately divided, proliferated, and morphed into neuron-like cells. It is also anticipated that in the future, scientists can suture a printed graphene structure to existing tissues to facilitate biodegradable sensors and medical implant development.  

Kansas State University

Researchers at Kansas State University sought after avenues to develop graphene aerogels with complex microstructures. In so doing, they yearn to make graphene aerogels more applicable to different uses in 3D printing. This university created a multi-nozzle method to incorporate graphene into building and structuring aerogels. The resulting aerogel has a density of 0.5 to 10 mg/cm3 while maintaining electrical conductivity and high compressibility.

Conclusion

Recent university and commercial research efforts in incorporating graphene structures into 3D printing material has the potential to drastically change the 3D printing industry. By harnessing graphene’s unique characteristics, some of the strongest, most durable objects can be 3D printed and weigh less than air. Companies involved in 3D printing with graphene are now eligible for R&D Tax Credit Opportunities.

 


Charles Goulding and Chloé Margulis of R&D Tax Savers discuss 3D printing applications for graphene.

 

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