A printed flexible sheet of piezoelectric smart material. Photo: H. Cui of the Zheng Lab.
A printed flexible sheet of piezoelectric smart material. Photo: H. Cui of the Zheng Lab.

The piezoelectric materials found in everything from our cell phones to musical greeting cards may be getting an upgrade thanks to work reported in a paper in Nature Materials.

Xiaoyu 'Rayne' Zheng, assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering at Virgina Tech and a member of the Macromolecules Innovation Institute, and his team have developed methods for 3D printing piezoelectric materials that can be custom-designed to convert movement, impact and stress from any direction into electrical energy.

"Piezoelectric materials convert strain and stress into electric charges," Zheng explained.

Up to now, piezoelectric materials have come in only a few defined shapes and have been made from brittle crystal and ceramic, requiring a clean room to manufacture. Zheng's team has developed a technique to 3D print these materials so they are not restricted by shape or size. The material can also be activated – providing the next generation of intelligent infrastructures and smart materials for tactile sensing, impact and vibration monitoring, energy harvesting, and other applications.

Piezoelectric materials were originally discovered in the 19th century. Since then, advances in manufacturing technology have led to the requirement for clean-rooms and a complex procedure for producing piezoelectric films and blocks, which are connected to electronics after machining. This expensive process, together with the inherent brittleness of the material, has limited the ability to maximize the material's potential.

Zheng's team has now developed a model that allows them to manipulate and design arbitrary piezoelectric constants, resulting in a material that can generate electric charge movement in response to incoming forces and vibrations from any direction, via a set of 3D printable topologies. Unlike conventional piezoelectrics, where electric charge movements are prescribed by the intrinsic crystals, the new method allows users to prescribe and program voltage responses to be magnified, reversed or suppressed in any direction.

"We have developed a design method and printing platform to freely design the sensitivity and operational modes of piezoelectric materials," Zheng said. "By programming the 3D active topology, you can achieve pretty much any combination of piezoelectric coefficients within a material, and use them as transducers and sensors that are not only flexible and strong, but also respond to pressure, vibrations and impacts via electric signals that tell the location, magnitude and direction of the impacts within any location of these materials."

A factor in current piezoelectric fabrication is the natural crystal that is used. At the atomic level, the orientation of atoms in a crystal are fixed. Zheng's team has produced a substitute that mimics the crystal but allows for the lattice orientation to be altered by design.

"We have synthesized a class of highly sensitive piezoelectric inks that can be sculpted into complex three-dimensional features with ultraviolet light. The inks contain highly concentrated piezoelectric nanocrystals bonded with UV-sensitive gels, which form a solution – a milky mixture like melted crystal – that we print with a high-resolution digital light 3D printer," Zheng explained.

The team demonstrated the 3D printed materials at a scale measuring fractions of the diameter of a human hair. "We can tailor the architecture to make them more flexible and use them, for instance, as energy harvesting devices, wrapping them around any arbitrary curvature," Zheng said. "We can make them thick, and light, stiff or energy-absorbing."

The printed material has sensitivities that are five-fold higher than flexible piezoelectric polymers. The stiffness and shape of the material can be tuned, allowing it to be produced as a thin sheet resembling a strip of gauze or as a stiff block. "We have a team making them into wearable devices, like rings, insoles, and fitting them into a boxing glove where we will be able to record impact forces and monitor the health of the user," said Zheng.

"The ability to achieve the desired mechanical, electrical and thermal properties will significantly reduce the time and effort needed to develop practical materials," said Shashank Priya, associate VP for research at Penn State and former professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech.

The team has printed and demonstrated smart materials wrapped around curved surfaces, and worn on hands and fingers to convert motion and harvest mechanical energy, but the applications go well beyond wearables and consumer electronics. Zheng sees the technology as a leap into robotics, energy harvesting, tactile sensing and intelligent infrastructure, where a structure is made entirely from piezoelectric material, allowing it to sense, monitor and locate impacts, vibrations and motions.

The team has already printed a small smart-bridge to demonstrate its applicability for sensing the locations of dropping impacts, as well as their magnitude, while being robust enough to absorb the impact energy. The team also demonstrated the printed material’s application in a smart transducer that converts underwater vibration signals to electric voltages.

"Traditionally, if you wanted to monitor the internal strength of a structure, you would need to have a lot of individual sensors placed all over the structure, each with a number of leads and connectors," said Huachen Cui, a doctoral student with Zheng and first author of the paper. "Here, the structure itself is the sensor – it can monitor itself."

This story is adapted from material from Virginia Tech, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.