Platinum is seen by many as the most precious of the precious metals, a material to be found only in the rarest and most expensive jewelry. Its applications go beyond adornment, however; platinum is also used in the oil and gas industry, in electronics, medicine, and more. It’s also sometimes seen as a 3D printing material – particularly for jewelry, but also for high-performance applications like aerospace components. Often what’s being 3D printed is a platinum alloy, but a group of organizations in South Africa decided last year to experiment with 3D printing pure platinum, for the first time in the country.
The group behind the project is called Platforum, a partnership between the Central University of Technology, North West University, Vaal University of Technology, and platinum producer Lonmin. The team was well aware of platinum’s benefits – it’s one of the densest metals known, it’s extremely corrosion-resistant, and highly ductile. They wondered how those benefits could be better leveraged if the metal could be additively manufactured.
“3D technology has gained in popularity in recent years, and the introduction of the additive manufacturing using precious metals will contribute and add to the range of applications where the properties of PGMs (Platinum Group Metals) are used,” said Wilma Swarts, Head of Marketing at Lonmin and Director of Platforum.
To 3D print with platinum, two main components were needed – a platinum powder and a 3D printer optimized to print it. Lonmin started by modifying an EOSINT M 280 from EOS, fitting it with a volume reducer because filling the full build volume with platinum powder would have been prohibitively expensive. A team worked on developing a platinum powder, and decided to test it with a small design – a complex ring. They first 3D printed the ring in late 2016, and it didn’t turn out so well, unfortunately, so the team went back to work, altering and testing new iterations of the powder. They changed the parameters of the machine and finally, in October of this year, 3D printed the ring with a powder that had been recharacterized for a more spherical particle shape, and it printed beautifully. The powder was 99.99% platinum.
The ring prototype was revealed to the public at the recent RAPDASA (Rapid Product Development Association of South Africa) conference, which took place last week in Durban. It was the product of an impressive collaboration, with the participants working together to design the ring, produce the powder, manage the machine parameters, and post-process the ring.
“Today’s reveal showcases the potential of 3D printing of Platinum Group Metals (PGMs),” said Swarts. “Through additive manufacturing, intricate and light weight PGM products can be manufactured at speed, presenting new opportunities for PGMs, socioeconomic development, Lonmin and the platinum mining sector.”
With the ability to 3D print pure platinum, a number of applications open up, including the development of new medical implants or the improvement of existing ones, the creation of advanced circuit boards for aerospace applications, and chemical and power generation applications. Of course, jewelry will always be a large market for platinum as well, and the ability to directly 3D print the material carries a lot of potential for rapid production and customization that goes beyond what is possible with traditional jewelry manufacturing techniques.
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