Vanderbilt University Researchers Using 3D Printers To Make Materials ‘Intelligent'

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - By now, you've heard about 3D printing. Now, Vanderbilt University researchers are taking this technology to a whole new level. 

"[3D Printers] typically use a plastic material to print any object you can imagine using a computer image," said Doug Adams, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Vanderbilt University. 

Researchers at Vanderbilt's engineering lab are thinking big, hoping one day 3D printers will be making U.S. infrastructure "intelligent." 

"The bridges, the aircraft, the nuclear power plants. All of these things have materials and those materials we have to constantly inspect them to make sure we can operate those systems safely and with minimal risk. So we want to figure out how to use 3D printing technology to help address that need," said Adams. 

PhD candidate Cole Brewbaker wants to change materials by introducing nanoparticles. 

"Very, very, very small. And if you were to take hair off the top your head and look at the diameter and divided by 10,000 times you'd fall within the nanoscale," said Brewbaker. 

By introducing these nanoparticles to regular materials like plastic, they become "smart." Inspectors can simply see if materials are damaged by using a black light.

"If the material develops some sort of damage we can essentially see the damage just by looking at the material. So the material has intelligence because it's reporting about its own health," said Adams. 

Inspecting airplanes and bridges and other large structures can be tedious, even dangerous work. Researchers are hoping this technology will help keep people safe and make the process faster and cheaper.

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