LLNL performs 3D printing with carbon fiber

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) researchers have become the first to 3D print aerospace-grade carbon fiber composites.

Carbon fiber is a lightweight, yet stiff and strong material with a high resistance to temperature, making the composite material popular in the aerospace, defense and automotive industries, and sports such as surfing and motorcycle racing.

Carbon fiber composites are typically fabricated one of two ways — by physically winding the filaments around a mandrel, or weaving the fibers together like a wicker basket. Fabricators also tend to overcompensate with material due to performance concerns, making the parts heavier, costlier and more wasteful than necessary.

However, LLNL researchers reported printing several complex 3D structures through a modified Direct Ink Writing (DIW) 3D printing process. Computational modeling was performed on LLNL’s supercomputers by a team of engineers who needed to simulate thousands of carbon fibers as they emerged from the ink nozzle to find out how to best align them during the process.

The ability to 3D print offers new degrees of freedom for carbon fiber. The material also is conductive, allowing for directed thermal channeling within a structure. The resultant material, could be used to make high-performance airplane wings, satellite components that are insulated on one side and don’t need to be rotated in space.

The direct ink writing process also makes it possible to print parts with all the carbon fibers going the same direction within the microstructures.