NASA uses 3D printing to integrate sensors into silicon wafers

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3D printing has become a real game-changer in the modern world. It can make all sorts of objects and is not at the mercy of large production lines. At one point, someone could even 3D print food. Now, researchers funded by NASA will apply the technology and manufacturing methods to print sensors and even part of the circuitry used for wireless communication on a circuit board smaller than your phone.

According to the presentation, the multi-sensor platforms used by scientists on Earth and in space have traditionally been built like any electronic product today. Each different sensor was manufactured separately and then integrated with other components on a circuit board, a process that was not only painstaking but also subject to errors somewhere along the assembly line.

The 3D printing technology being investigated by Mahmooda Sultana and her team at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center will simplify the production and packaging of these important platforms. Using nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes and graphene, they will print all the necessary sensors in a single process and on the same substrate. They could even 3D print parts of the wireless communication circuits that are necessary for the platform to communicate with the ground controller for data.

If Sultana and her team are successful, they could change the face of NASA research forever. Each platform will be self-sufficient, able to detect a variety of environmental data, from gas concentrations to atmospheric pressure to temperature, and transmit that data on its own. All that is needed is to add a power supply and communication circuitry to the rest. 3D printed multi-use sensor platforms not only simplify the production process, but also reduce power consumption and chip size, which in turn could be used not only on planetary rovers, but even on space suits to monitor health and safety.