Car radars, 5G communication systems and satellite-based atmospheric sensors could all be improved as a result of a UK project to develop 3D printed terahertz and microwave circuits.
Although 3D printing is widely used in many areas of manufacturing, its use in microwave and terahertz circuits has so far been limited by the level of precision required to build devices at such a small scale.
However, the accuracy of 3D printers has significantly improved in recent years, with some now able to print down to a resolution of five microns or less, according to Michael Lancaster at Birmingham University, who is leading the EPSRC-funded project.
So the research team are aiming to work with 3D printing companies to design and print novel devices at these small scales, he said. By using 3D printing techniques, the researchers hope to rapidly generate novel circuits with complex shapes and multiple functions in a lightweight form, without producing large amounts of waste material.
This should result in reliable, low cost circuits with improved performance, and faster manufacturing lead times.
The project will focus on 3D printed circuits at frequencies above 50GHz, which are typically used for free space communications, security sensing and remote monitoring of the Earth’s atmosphere.
“The immediate applications are 5G communications and car radar, which has frequencies well above 100GHz, and so we’re working with Jaguar Land Rover,” said Lancaster. “In this particular project we’re also working with Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), who are interested in atmospheric sensing: putting these things on satellites to look down at the atmosphere, to study the weather and other atmospheric conditions,” he said.
The researchers are particularly interested in the filters and other metal components found alongside the antenna and electronics on terahertz and microwave circuits, said Lancaster.
“As the devices go up in frequency these components get more difficult to make,” said Lancaster.
Rather than buying in their own 3D printers, which would no longer be at the cutting edge of the technology by the end of the three-year project, the researchers are buying in printing services from specialist companies.
“We’re looking for the best companies around the world who can print things very accurately,” he said. “At the moment we are talking to a company called 3D MicroPrint in Germany, and Swissto12 in Switzerland.”