Silver and 3D Printing: A New Source of Demand?

At the end of July, The Silver Institute released a report called The Outlook for New Electrical and Electronic Uses of Silver. Prepared by Metals Focus, it looks at three potential areas of growth for the white metal: flexible electronics, light-emitting diodes and interposers.

Those are all exciting applications of silver, but they’re definitely not the only new uses of the metal that are garnering attention. Another — perhaps unexpected — arena in which silver is making waves is 3D printing.

Here’s a brief overview of how silver fits into the 3D printing landscape.

In terms of where silver enters the picture, Jeffrey Ellis, The Silver Institute’s senior technology consultant, states in the firm’s most recent newsletter that two types of 3D printing processes involve silver.

The first “is the equivalent of casting silver into a 3D printed mold such as those made of plaster-fortified wax” — in other words, a mold is created using a 3D printer and molten silver is then poured into it. That method is the more common of the two and is used by companies like Sculpteo, i.materialise and New York-headquartered Shapeways, whose goal is to give “anyone the ability to quickly and affordably turn ideas from digital designs into real products.” A quick glance at the company’s website shows that many people are doing just that, using 3D-printed molds to create jewelry, other accessories and more.

The second, which Ellis describes as “direct laser sintering, a process of forming a solid with heat that does not reach the melting point,” involves silver more directly, but is “a relatively new technique that has yet to be widely adopted.” Explaining why that’s the case, he notes that silver’s high reflectivity “is a serious challenge because so little of the light is absorbed to accomplish the fusing.” One company currently working on overcoming that difficulty is Cookson Precious Metals.

Ultimately, that technique may lead to some very interesting uses of silver. Ellis notes that it could allow government and private mints to produce coins and other objects, and will perhaps also be used to manufacture “batteries and other electrical components.”

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