To print shape-memory structures with even finer details, Fang and his colleagues used a 3-D printing process they have pioneered, called microstereolithography, in which they use light from a projector to print patterns on successive layers of resin.
The researchers first create a model of a structure using computer-aided design (CAD) software, then divide the model into hundreds of slices, each of which they send through the projector as a bitmap -- an image file format that represents each layer as an arrangement of very fine pixels. The projector then shines light in the pattern of the bitmap, onto a liquid resin, or polymer solution, etching the pattern into the resin, which then solidifies.
"We're printing with light, layer by layer," Fang says. "It's almost like how dentists form replicas of teeth and fill cavities, except that we're doing it with high-resolution lenses that come from the semiconductor industry, which give us intricate parts, with dimensions comparable to the diameter of a human hair."
The researchers then looked through the scientific literature to identify an ideal mix of polymers to create a shape-memory material on which to print their light patterns. They picked two polymers, one composed of long-chain polymers, or spaghetti-like strands, and the other resembling more of a stiff scaffold. When mixed together and cured, the material can be stretched and twisted dramatically without breaking.
What's more, the material can bounce back to its original printed form, within a specific temperature range -- in this case, between 40 and 180 degrees Celsius (104 to 356 degrees Fahrenheit).
The team printed a variety of structures, including coils, flowers, and the miniature Eiffel tower, whose full-size counterpart is known for its intricate steel and beam patterns. Fang found that the structures could be stretched to three times their original length without breaking. When they were exposed to heat within the range of 40 C to 180 C, they snapped back to their original shapes within seconds.
"Because we're using our own printers that offer much smaller pixel size, we're seeing much faster response, on the order of seconds," Fang says. "If we can push to even smaller dimensions, we may also be able to push their response time, to milliseconds."