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Science & Innovation

North Carolina State University researchers have created a new 3D printing ink which generates soft and flexible structures. These structures can be controlled with a magnetic field while floating on water and have the potential to be used in a variety of applications in the future.

3D printing technology is becoming increasingly common in research and industry, but its use is limited due to lack of availability of specialist inks that can be used to generate novel structures. In this study, scientists first made an ink from silicone microbeads, bound in liquid silicone and water. This mixture has a paste-like consistency, similar to household toothpaste, where it can be easily manipulated, but retains its shape and does not drip.

What is 3D Printing and how does it work? Video: Funk-e Studios

The ink was then fed into a 3D printer and used to create mesh patterns. The final structures are cured in an oven and contain embedded iron carbonyl particles, which allow the researchers to use magnetic fields to manipulate it.

Materials

Researchers claim to be ‘on the cusp’ of creating a new generation of devices that could vastly expand the practical applications for 3D and 4D printing. At the ACS meeting in New Orleans in March, H. Jerry Qi at Georgia Institute of Technology reported the development of a prototype printer that not only simplifies and speeds up traditional 3D printing processes, but also greatly expands the range of materials that can be printed.

‘Our prototype printer integrates many features that appear to simplify and expedite the processes used in traditional 3D printing,’ said Qi. ’As a result, we can use a variety of materials to create hard and soft components at the same time, incorporate conductive wiring directly into shape-changing structures, and ultimately set the stage for the development of a host of 4D products that could reshape our world.

4D printing would allow 3D printed components to change their shape over time after exposure to environmental triggers such as heat, light and humidity. In 2017, for example, Qi’s group, in collaboration with scientists at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, used a composite made from an acrylic and an epoxy along with a commercial heat source to create 4D objects, such as a flower that can close its petals or a star that morphs into a dome. These objects transformed 90% faster than previously possible because the team incorporated the mechanical programming steps directly into the 3D printing process.

 H Jerry Qi right with Glaucio Paulino

H Jerry Qi (right) with Glaucio Paulino, a professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, hold 3D printed objects that use tensegrity – a structural system of floating rods in compression and cables in continuous tension. Image: Rob Felt

‘As a result, the 3D printed component can rapidly change its shape upon heating,’ the researchers reported. ‘This second shape largely remains stable in later variations in temperature such as cooling back to room temperature. Furthermore, a third shape can be programmed by thermomechanical loading, and the material will always recover back to the permanent (second) stable shape upon heating.’

In their latest work, the group sought to create an ‘all-in-one’ printer that combines four different printing techniques: aerosol, inkjet, direct ink write and fused deposition modelling. The resulting machine can handle a range of materials such as hydrogels, silver nanoparticle-based conductive inks, liquid crystal elastomers and shape memory polymers (SMPs). 

 

It can even create electrical wiring that can be printed directly onto an antenna, sensor or other electrical device. The process uses a direct-ink-write method to produce a line of silver nanoparticle ink, which is dried using a photonic cure unit – whereupon the nanparticles coalesce to form conductive wire. Lastly, the wires are encased in plastic coating via the printer’s inkjet component.

The researchers can also use the printer to create higher quality SMPs capable of making more intricate shape changes than in the past. And to also make materials comprising both harder and softer or more bendable regions, Qi explained. Here, the printer projects a range of white, grey or black shades of light to trigger a polymer crosslinking reaction dependent on the greyscale of shade shone on the component part. Brighter light shades create harder component parts than darker shades.

In terms of applications, Qi’s own particular interest is in developing ‘soft robots’ with sensory properties more akin to human skin than the traditional metallic or rigid robots with which we are probably more familiar. Sensory robots, Qi says, will play a big role in future safety for human workers working alongside robots. As a first step in that direction, his group is currently working with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to investigate whether the new technology could make prosthetic hands for children born with malformed arms – a condition not covered by most medical insurance policies. The idea would be to combine multiple different sensors to create a functional replacement hand.

In future, new 3D and 4D printers will ultimately be capable of printing whatever we might want to make, Qi says. He points, for example, to work by Jennifer Lewis at the University of Harvard to 3D print a Li-ion battery – an essential component of mobile phones and computer laptops. However, Qi notes that 3D printing does not always make economic or practical sense for all items. Instead, a big consideration will be ‘pick and place’ technology that mixes and matches printed and non-printed components to assemble the desired objects.

 

Energy

Installing new energy infrastructure on the Isles of Scilly, UK, is a tricky proposition, given the islands’ location 28 miles off the Cornish coast, and a population of just 2,500 to share the high costs. 

But an exciting new project is about to transform the islands’ energy provision, reducing energy costs and supporting clean growth, through the use of a smart energy grid.

By 2025, the Smart Islands programme aims to provide the Isles of Scilly with 40% of its electricity from renewables, cut Scillonians’ electricity bills by 40%, and revolutionise transport, with 40% of cars to be electric or low-carbon. The key to this will be an integrated smart energy system, operated by a local community energy services company and monitored through an Internet of Things platform.

 Local Growth Fund

In the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy, published in November 2017, it was announced that the Local Growth Fund would provide £2.95m funding to the project, via the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership.

The project will be led by Hitachi Europe Ltd in a public-private partnership, along with UK-based smart energy technology company Moixa, and smart energy software company PassivSystems.

 

Colin Calder, CEO of PassivSystems, explained, ‘Our scalable cloud-based energy management platform will be integrated with a range of domestic and commercial renewable technologies, allowing islanders to reduce their reliance on imported fossil fuels, increase energy independence and lower their carbon footprint.

‘These technologies have the potential to significantly increase savings from solar PV systems.’

Aiming to increase the renewable capacity installed on the island by 450kW and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 897 tonnes CO2 equivalent per annum, 100 homes on the islands (a tenth of the total) will be fitted with rooftop solar photovoltaic systems, and two 50kW solar gardens will also be built.

100 homes will also get energy management systems, and 10 of them will pilot a variety of additional smart energy technologies such as smart batteries and air source heat pumps.

 

Chris Wright, Moixa Chief Technology Officer, said: ‘Ordinary people will play a key role in our future energy system. Home batteries and electric vehicles controlled by smart software will help create a reliable, cost-effective, low-carbon energy system that will deliver savings to homeowners and the community.

‘Our systems will support the reduction of fuel poverty on the Scilly Isles and support their path to full energy independence. They will be scalable and flexible so they can be replicated easily to allow communities all over the world to cut carbon and benefit from the smart power revolution.’

The burgeoning smart energy industry is attracting serious investment – only this week, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) announced it will invest up to £8.8 million in new ideas for products and services that use smart meter data to reduce energy demand in small, non-domestic buildings; while Manchester-based smart energy start-up Upside Energy this week announced it had secured £5.5m in its first round of venture capital financing to commercialise and deploy its cloud-based smart grid platform.

Smart energy covers a range of technologies intended to allow both companies and households to increase their energy efficiency. Smart meters are currently being offered by energy suppliers, with the aim of allowing energy companies to automatically manage consumer energy use to reduce bills, for example, running your washing machine when energy demand (and therefore cost) is low. 

Battery technology also plays a major role in smart energy, allowing users to store renewable power and potentially even sell back into the grid as demand requires. In the Industrial Strategy, the government announced a new £80m National Battery Manufacturing Development Facility (NBMD) in Coventry, which will bring together academics and businesses to work on new forms and designs of batteries, as well as their chemistry and components. 

 Isles of Scilly

The Isles of Scilly’s small population and remote access issues make it an interesting candidate for a smart energy project. Image: NASA, International Space Station Science

The funding for this and a further £40m investment into 27 individual battery research projects have been allocated from the £246m Faraday Challenge, which was announced in July.

The Smart Islands project promises a real-world demonstration of how a community can harness the power of the Internet of Things to maintain an efficient, inexpensive, and clean energy system. 

Careers

Artificial intelligence (AI) – the ability of any man-made device to perceive its environment, identify a goal, and take rational actions to that end – can seem like a concept of science fiction. Recently, however, exponential growth in the field, with developments such as driverless cars, has made the prospect very real. The pace of change has led many to express concern about the dangers of artificial AI, although most of the potential benefits are yet to be realised.

A key aspect when trying to understand AI is knowledge of ‘machine learning’. Previously, software had to be ‘taught’ everything by the programmer, but this is no longer the case. DeepMind, one of the world’s leading groups in developing artificial intelligence, has seen considerable investment from high profile figures such as Elon Musk and has recently been acquired by Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

 

DeepMind claims to have developed software that mimics human imagination by considering the possible consequences of their actions and interpreting the results, ignoring irrelevant information. This allows the software to plan ahead, solving tasks in fewer steps and performing much better than conventional AI.

Could machines become better than humans?

There is plenty to suggest that AI, if managed correctly, could positively benefit society, tackling issues such as global warming and healthcare. On the other hand, sceptics argue that the developments in AI will drastically disrupt many industries. 

A decade ago, truck drivers were thought to be irreplaceable; now, Tesla and many other companies are making autonomous self-driving cars a reality. The pharmaceutical industry may also see immense changes; incredibly complex computational biological models will soon be able to fully predict drug mechanisms and interactions, allowing for much better analysis and speeding up the currently painstakingly slow clinical trial process for new drugs.

 Ubers selfdriving car

Uber’s self-driving car being testing in Pittsburgh. Image: Rex

It isn’t only drivers that are at risk of losing their jobs. Historian Yuval Noah Harari states that, just like the industrial revolution lessened the requirement for manual labour, the AI revolution will create vast amounts of unemployable people as their skills become redundant. 

Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne from the University of Oxford predict that 47% of jobs are at high risk of being taken over by computer algorithms by 2033. Their list of jobs is striking – insurance underwriters, chefs, waiters, carpenters, and lifeguards are all at high risk of being superfluous. The displacement of human workers because of AI will be one of the key issues that policymakers and governments must consider going into the future.

 Elon Musk

Elon Musk, Founder of SpaceX and CEO of Tesla, Inc. Image: TED Conference

What could go wrong?

Facebook had to shut down its most recent AI system after it discovered that its chatbots were communicating between themselves in a new language that used English words but could not be understood by humans. Although the AI agents were rewarded for negotiating efficiently, they were not confined to just using English. The result was that they deviated from it and instead opted to create a language that was easier and faster for them to communicate, causing the social media giant to pull the plug on the system.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and co-founder of PayPal, has very strong views about the development of AI, famously stating that AI is an ‘existential risk for human civilisation’. He raises interesting questions about cybersecurity and malicious AI that may be exploited by hackers to destabilise the outdated and less intelligent software that often controls the electricity and water of the world’s cities.

Above: Musk in Conversation with Max Tegmark, author of Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence 

AI is a rare case where we need to be proactive in regulation instead of reactive because ‘if we’re reactive in AI regulation it’s too late’, he said. At the moment, the technology is far from the apocalyptic, self-evolving software that haunts Musk. But we are becoming more and more accustomed to AI in our daily life; for example, Apple’s Siri interpreting voice commands and Facebook’s targeted advertising system.


 Hermann Hauser

Hermann Hauser Image: Franz Johann Morgenbesser

Interested in AI?

SCI is running a Public Evening Lecture in London on Wednesday 25 October – Machine Intelligence: Are Machines Better than Humans? The talk will be given by Hermann Hauser, co-founder of Amadeus Capital Partners, Acorn Computers, and ARM. It is free to attend, but spaces are limited. Don’t miss out – book your place here.