A Bet on 3D Printing to Scale up Liquid and Gas Flows

The human identity is constructed upon many valuable elements, but to be honest, there is nothing thing that defines us better than our tendency to grow on a consistent basis. This is because the stated tendency has got the world to hit upon some huge milestones, with technology appearing as a major member of the group. The reason why we hold technology in such a high regard is, by and large, predicated upon its skill-set, which ushered us towards a reality that nobody could have ever imagined otherwise. Nevertheless, if we look beyond the surface, it will become clear how the whole runner was also very much inspired from the way we applied those skills across a real-world environment. The latter component was, in fact, what gave the creation a spectrum-wide presence, and as a result, kickstarted a full-blown tech revolution. Of course, this revolution then went on to scale up the human experience through many different directions, but even after achieving a feat so notable, technology will somehow keep on delivering the goods. The same has turned more and more evident in recent times, and assuming one recent discovery ends up with the desired impact, it will only put that trend on a higher pedestal moving forward.

The researching team at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has successfully managed to use additive manufacturing for the purpose of 3D printing a vacuum pump, which can create and maintain vacuum with lower pressure than a typical dry and rough pump. Operable at atmospheric pressure instead, the new vacuum pump can be used across a host of different areas, ranging from portable mass spectrometer that monitors soil contamination in isolated parts of the world to  geological survey equipment bound for Mars, Before getting into the specifics of the new technology, though we must start by acknowledging the problem that plague those existing pumps. You see, peristaltic pumps are commonly used to move harmful liquids or gases such as reactive chemicals. Here, the in-transit substance is entirely contained within a flexible tube which is looped around a set of rollers. The stated rollers squeeze the tube against its housing as they rotate, thus causing its pinched bit to expand in their wake. Now, while this does create a vacuum to draw liquid or gas through the tube, peristaltic pumps notably come with certain design limitations that restrict their use in mass spectrometers. For instance, the tube material redistributes when force is applied by the rollers, leading to gaps big enough to trigger deadly leaks.

But how will MIT’s new pump solve the problem? Well, made from a special type of hyperelastic material, the 3D printed pump is made to withstand a huge amount of deformation. Adding to its overall resilience are the notches that embed themselves into the tube’s walls and reduce stress on the material when squeezed. Thanks to notches, the tube material should not face any non-negotiable need to redistribute to counteract the force from the rollers.

“Fluid movement is a huge challenge when trying to make small and portable equipment, and this work elegantly exploits the advantages of multimaterial 3D printing to create a highly integrated and functional pump to create a vacuum for gas control. Not only is the pump smaller than pretty much anything similar, but it generates vacuum 100 times lower as well,” said Michael Breadmore, professor in analytical chemistry at the University of Tasmania.

Going by some initial tests, the researchers were able to clock an amount of vacuum, which to even equal, would require at least three standard diaphragm pumps. Another encouraging observation came disguised as a more optimal temperature, with the new technology seemingly successful in reaching no more than 50°C, half that of state-of-the-art pumps used in other studies.

For the future, the researchers already have a plan in place to further reduce the maximum temperature, something that would get the tube to actuate faster, create a better vacuum, all while enjoying a higher flow rate. Apart from it, they are also working to 3D print an entire miniaturized mass spectrometer at some point.

“One of the key advantages of using 3D printing is that it allows us to aggressively prototype. If you do this work in a clean room, where a lot of these miniaturized pumps are made, it takes a lot of time and a lot of money. If you want to make a change, you have to start the entire process over. In this case, we can print our pump in a matter of hours, and every time it can be a new design,” said Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, senior author of a paper describing the new pump.

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