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Institute of Physics

The Chinese Academy of Sciences 3D prints particle models

"3D printing transformed the way we conduct experiments. It is now much easier to create precise models for validating hypotheses."
– Professor Meiying Hou / The Institute of Physics,
Chinese Academy of Sciences

Reinventing Research

measurement of granular chian
auto CAD drawing of granular chain

The CAD drawing and 3D printed granular chain created for the physics experiment.

sketch of a granular chain

Measurement of the 3D printed granular chain.

The Institute of Physics (IOP) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences is one of the key laboratories in China that conducts multidisciplinary research in applied physics. Founded in 1950, IOP employs a number of renowned scientists who have won over 300 awards, including five from the World Academy of Physics. To deepen the understanding and enhance the study of the action and reaction of massless, invisible particles, the IOP’s Laboratory of Soft Matter and Biological Physics (Physics Lab) turned to 3D printing.

Meeting Research Challenges

To prepare a particle kinetics experiment, the Physics Lab 3D prints models that simulate tiny particles that are not just spherical, but differ in size and shape, from conical to cylindrical and cubical to irregular. Before using a 3D printer, the team outsourced objects to represent different particles. They purchased round beads from jewelry manufacturers and pellets from grinding machine manufacturers. Often the Physics Lab team outsourced irregular particle models to factories, resulting in more time, manpower and higher costs, without knowing if the precision of the fabricated models was adequate.

To ensure high quality for their experiments, Professor Meiying Hou, leader of the Physics Lab team, invested in PolyJet™ technology by Stratasys. Because of its microscopic layer resolution and accuracy to within 0.1mm, 3D printing with PolyJet is ideal for smaller concept models. “3D printed models enable us to visualize the interaction of particles in their actual shapes,” said Professor Hou. “We can even 3D print particle models in eight materials according to the requirements of different experiments.”

3D Printed Models Support Complex Research

3D printing helps IOP’s researchers create highly precise particle models easily for many experiments. Rather than spending extensive time and money on vendors, the Physics Lab can 3D print particle models on site with less lead time and cost. Conceptual models are easier to build too without the hurdle of communicating abstract ideas to outsourced vendors. “3D printing transformed the way we conduct experiments. It is much easier to create precise models for validating hypotheses,” said Hou.

In a vibration test comparing the collision frequency among surfaces with different textures, the team produced a complex particle model according to strict requirements. Particles had to be 6mm in diameter, perforated and strung together with a fine chain connecting them.

Outsourcing the granular chain model would take up to 10 days and require extra steps for assembly and post-processing. If the model failed to meet specified experimental requirements, the whole process had to be repeated. Instead, 3D printing the chain as a single model took just two days without any assembly or post-processing. The 3D printed granular chains were also highly precise and consistent, even though each one was no more than 5cm in length.

“3D printing shortens the experiment cycle,” said Hou. “With 3D printing, just one research member can complete all the work. 3D printed models allow rapid testing and design modifications in the laboratory, minimizing experiment errors.”

Other research groups within the IOP also use 3D printing in their experiments.

“3D printing is a powerful tool that promotes the development of the entire applied physics discipline, and helps researchers open a new page of science and innovation,” said Hou. “3D printing transformed the way we conduct experiments as it is now much easier to create precise models for validating hypotheses. The technology has helped us promote applied physics because we can turn abstract theories into vivid demonstrations.”

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