Accelerating Science Discovery - Join the Discussion

3-D Printing - A powerful tool gains momentum

by Kathy Chambers on Thu, May 29, 2014

3D printed and perforated metal box

3D printing technology is gaining fresh momentum in Department of Energy (DOE) research endeavors. 3D printing is achieved using an additive manufacturing process that creates 3D objects directly from a computer model, depositing material layer by layer only where required. This technology is expected to exert a profound impact on an increasing array of applications in architecture, engineering, construction, industrial design, automotive, aerospace, military, engineering, dental and medical industries, biotechnology, apparel, eyewear, education, geographic information systems, and many other fields.  

Scientists at DOE facilities are using 3D printing technology to help industry adopt new manufacturing technologies, reduce life-cycle energy and greenhouse gas emissions, lower production cost, and create new products and opportunities for high-paying jobs. A quick glimpse into some current DOE research projects provides an idea of how 3D printing technology is providing opportunities for practical advances in science.

Collaborators from a DOE Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) have shown that 3D printing can be used to print lithium-ion microbatteries the size of a grain of sand for potential use in tiny medical or communication devices. The team, based at Harvard University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, printed precisely interlaced stacks of tiny battery electrodes with ink, each less than the width of a human hair. The team also designed a broad range of functional inks with useful chemical and electrical properties to utilize in the creation of precise structures with electronic, optical, mechanical, or biologically relevant properties.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) colleagues are printing aircraft parts with 3D printers to show aircraft makers how carbon dioxide emissions can be reduced throughout the part’s life cycle and how parts’ weights can be reduced on aircrafts to save fuel. DOE’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at ORNL has also partnered with Cincinnati Incorporated in Harrison, Ohio to develop a large-scale polymer additive manufacturing 3-D printing system. This project could introduce significant new capabilities to the U.S. tooling sector, which in turn supports a wide range of industries. ORNL has also recently signed an agreement with Local Motors, Inc. to develop and deliver technology to produce the world’s first production 3D printed vehicle.  

A major challenge of the 21st century is finding alternatives to rare-earth elements and other critical materials. Ames Laboratory’s Critical Materials Institute is working on a 3D printer that will be used to print new alloys and rare earth metals and allow scientists to speed metals research. For Ames Laboratory researchers, 3D printers have the potential to become very powerful instruments for synthesizing large libraries of materials.  

Dr. William Watson’s latest white paper In the OSTI Collections: 3D Printing and Other Additive Manufacturing Technologies provides extensive detail about this technique, including more project examples and graphic illustrations. Additional information on 3D printing may be found via DOE’s National Library of EnergyBeta, a portal to information from across the entire DOE complex and Scitech Connect, which provides access to DOE science, technology, and engineering research information. Research on 3D printing from U.S. federal science agencies is searchable in  and foreign information can be searched in


Image credit: Jason Richards, ORNL

Page last updated on 2017-08-11 10:52

About the Author

Kathy Chambers's picture
Kathy Chambers
Technical Writer, Information International Associates, Inc.