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A man and a woman standing next to a 3D printer in a lab

Chad Eichfeld, left, associate research professor and Nanofabrication Lab director of operations, and Amira Meddeb, research professor, electrical characterizations, in the Nanofabrications Lab with the Lithoz CeraFab Lab 3D printer. Credit: Jamie Oberdick. All Rights Reserved.

Small ceramic figure of the Penn State Lion Shrine and Beaver Stadium
group of people standing around a 3D printer in a lab

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A recently installed 3D ceramics printer offers Penn State materials researchers advanced capabilities to easily produce high-resolution ceramic parts and other innovative ceramics for cutting-edge materials research at a lower cost than sourcing them. 

While many are familiar with ceramics as art or household items like coffee mugs, ceramics have lesser-known applications ranging from energy storage via solid-state batteries to ferroelectric and piezoelectric devices such as heat sensors. Researchers from Penn State’s Materials Research Institute (MRI) said they view the Lithoz CeraFab Lab 3D printer as a necessary tool to further materials-related research across the entire University. 

“This will be part of a user facility here at Penn State, in the Nanofabrication Lab,” said Amira Meddeb, associate research professor in MRI. “The number one reason we acquired it is to allow more capabilities not just for the Penn State community but also for our extended user community that we work with, including other higher education institutions and industry.” 

Enabling this production also allows MRI to create custom scientific tools for other Penn State researchers, which ordinarily are expensive and difficult to source.  

“The printer allows us to produce custom and complex parts that are usually costly and have long lead times, such as custom-designed crucibles and microreactors,” Meddeb said. 

The resin-based printer uses digital light processing technology, a technique that uses light to cure photosensitive liquid resins into hard solids. This enables in-house production of high-resolution parts and full-density ceramics comparable in properties and microstructure to ceramics made by traditional manufacturing methods.  

“Ceramics are extremely hard to manufacture traditionally for a variety of reasons, especially because they're so hard when they're finished and sintered, they're very difficult to machine,” said Shawn Allan, vice president of Lithoz America LLC. “In addition, they can be delicate before they are sintered so in that state, they are also hard to fixture and machine. Versus with this printer, you can much more easily make multiple iterations of a part with different geometries and different dimensions and get the actual part you need.” 

The printer can print a wide variety of ceramic materials. It offers the ability to easily change materials for different projects, and it is relatively simple to learn to use, especially for someone with a traditional ceramics processing background. The printer rounds out the research offerings provided by MRI, according to Chad Eichfeld, associate research professor and director of operations in the Nanofabrication Lab. 

“We can work with researchers to do the design of the material, the 3D printing of the material, [and] you can also do the characterization here,” Eichfeld said. “Having all of that together lets you actually do the rapid iterations of ceramic production that are necessary for our researchers’ success.” 

Along with research benefits, Eichfeld noted that the new printer has a lot of potential for materials education at Penn State.  

“Penn State is a hands-on educational institution,” Eichfeld said. “At other universities, a student might give some of the processing that is done in Amira’s lab and my lab to a technician, and they would do the work for you. But we are all hands-on. That is powerful, with our graduate students and even some undergraduates getting hands-on experience with state-of-the-art technology here. That experience will be really rewarding for them as they begin their career."