The materials market for 3D printing is turning into a hotbed for innovation. More than likely the material science behind 3D printing will be just as, if not more important than the 3D printing technology itself. There are already dozens of different types of filament that one can print with. There are the pure plastics like ABS and PLA, but then there are plastics infused with other materials, that give prints unique looks and feels.
One company, 3DXTech which is a division of Global Polymer Group, has come out with some pretty incredible filaments. The company, located in Byron Center, Michigan, has recently begun selling carbon nanotube (CNT) composite filament. That’s right, you can now 3D print objects made out of a material which has actual CNTs within it.
For those of you who are not aware, carbon nanotubes are the incredibly strong, light weight, highly conductive tubes, which are made of only carbon atoms. Basically if you were to take a sheet of graphene, roll it up, and connect the ends, you would have a carbon nanotube.
3DPrint.com was able to speak with Matthew Howlett, president of Global Polymer Group, and talk a bit about the materials he has been working on for 3D printing. His ESD carbon nanotube filament, called 3DXNano™ is targeted towards the automobile, and semiconductor industries. Carbon nanotubes, by themselves are extremely strong, however as Howlett explains, “composites don’t translate into strength, as polymers won’t bond to the carbon atoms in the nanotubes.”
Since the filament has an ABS base with multi-walled carbon nanotubes mixed in, and is not just one giant CNT, the properties of strength do not transfer into the filament.
“The practical uses of carbon nanotubes and thermaplastics have largely been related to their electrical properties,” Howlett explained
If a high enough load of CNT’s are in the filament, the objects printed will be conductive. Howlett revealed to me that two materials are currently being tested, one with a much larger load of CNT’s than the other. The obstacles which they are running into, which are being worked on currently, is the fact that once the load of CNT’s increases, the density of the filament makes it difficult to print with.
I asked Howlett to give me a couple of examples of just what these filaments and their resin counterparts could be used for. He believes that CNT composites have exceptional uses within hard drives, which traditionally use a material called ‘carbon black’ for their conductive properties.
He explained, “Carbon black can contaminate the hard drive or circuits while carbon nanotubes don’t do that, so they are ideal. The CNT composites retain a lot of the base resin’s mechanical properties like impact and elongation.”
Howlett explained that you can put 2.5% by weight of CNT’s in a material and get the same conductivity as that of 15% by weight carbon black, and the carbon black will be brittle, while the CNT composite filament would be very flexible, taking on the properties of the underlying ABS plastic.
Clearly the market will be there for this material. However, the market for those using FDM based 3D printers, needing a CNT composite filament is extremely small at this time. Howlett has a plan though.
“We don’t anticipate the carbon nanotube filaments to be huge players, but we sell the resins also, so if Seagate for example prototypes in the filament, and they like the part, they can then contact us and we will sell them the base resin for their production quantities. We are able to bridge that gap between prototyping and production. We have the ability to supply the material in filament or in boxes [of resin] for injection molding” he stated.
3DXTech is seemingly at the forefront of the materials industry, especially for those used in FDM based 3D printers. They are working on, and already have available, several unique filament composites, all which can be found on their website. Their next generation material is already nearing launch and it’s a PETG+CNT compound. Discuss this incredible new material at the 3DXTech carbon nanotube filament forum thread. The 3DXNano CNT composite filament can be purchased for $42 for a 0.5 kg spool.
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