Sonolithography – Shaping the future of printing with sound


3D printing really came into its own over the last decade, becoming more widespread and affordable, with a healthy online community as well as countless applications and ideas for the technology. Now, scientists and researchers have pushed the technology even further using soundwaves, otherwise known as Sonolithography.

It’s possible to precisely control aerosol droplets or particles and to arrange them into predetermined patterns. The resulting printing is more precise, more efficient, and cheaper, and could become a widely used method of 3D printing, and could even supersede existing methods.

The research, conducted collaboratively between Bath and Bristol Universities in the UK, could provide great benefits for various applications like printed electronics, industrial painting and spray coating, and even biofabrication. Let’s take a closer look at this emerging technology.

The 3D printing revolution

It’s no exaggeration to say that 3D printing has revolutionized manufacturing, allowing one-off prints of highly bespoke parts for use in various applications. The medical industry has been one of the areas in which 3D printing has proven especially effective, with widespread use in the field of prosthetics as well as cutting edge practices such as tissue generation. A 3D printed bladder was the first organ to be successfully transplanted into a human, and medical scientists are striving to develop more usable organs. Aeronautics and the automobile industry are also benefiting from the ability to quickly design and print bespoke parts. Home users have taken 3D printing to heart, creating all manner of products and fostering a busy online community.

Sonolithography research

Researchers in the UK from Bath and Bristol Universities have been developing sonolithography in 3D printing. The process uses soundwaves to coax microscopic particles and droplets into precise patterns based on a design. Affecting particles with sound is nothing new and used in medical processes such as spectroscopy, where a droplet of liquid (e.g., blood) can be analyzed. But the researchers have added a new element – that of directionality. As Professor Mike Fraser of Bath University explains:

“The power of ultrasound has already been shown to levitate small particles. We are excited to have hugely expanded the range of applications by patterning dense clouds of material in the air at scale and being able to algorithmically control how the material settles into shapes.”

This directionality greatly opens up the possibilities for accurate and efficient printing, which researchers hope can benefit the emerging field of biofabrication.

Benefits of sonolithography for medicine

Biofabrication is the process of creating complex biological materials such as cells, matrices, biomaterials, and molecules. Sonolithography, with its gentle, non-contact, and rapid patterning, is ideally suited to the process – as the particles won’t come into contact with any other material, they won’t be subject to any impurities – a vital factor. For medical applications, this is a real game-changer – it enables treatment to repair parts of the human body without using grafts and other procedures. The capacity for using 3D printed technology of replacement organs for transplant is still being explored. While a bladder has been successfully transplanted, the advent of sonolithography may well mean that bespoke organ printing will become commonplace. Prosthetics is an area of medicine that has already been positively affected by 3D printing, but with the accuracy and efficiency of sonolithographic prints, more complex items will be printable, and the capacity for printing replacement bones will also increase.

Other areas

Organizations such as NASA were quick to adopt 3D printing technology to manufacture bespoke parts for their ground facilities and spacecraft. 3D printers are now carried into space to quickly produce any component that may be required – they are likely to introduce sonolithography into their process. And intricate electronic parts have already been made using the process – conductive inks into circuits and components being just two examples. In fact, solderless circuit boards can be easily produced with a 3D printer. When the physical soldering has been eradicated from the assembly line, there is a smaller margin for error.

Sonolithography is certainly an exciting development in 3D printing. While it is unlikely to impact home users, it is almost certain that the process will become widespread in such industries as medicine and electronic engineering, shaping the future of manufacturing.