Researchers at the University of Warwick have created a cheap plastic composite that can be used even with low-end 3D printers, to produce custom-made electronic devices. The material, nicknamed "carbomorph," is both conductive and piezoresistive, meaning that both electronic tracks and touch-sensitive areas can now be easily embedded in 3D-printed objects without the need for complex procedures or expensive materials.

Carbomorph was made by adding carbon black – a conductive filler produced by the combustion of tar and vegetable oil – to a matrix of polycaprolactone (PCL), which is a biodegradable polyester with a low melting point of 60°C (140°F).

The result is a highly versatile composite that can be adapted to quickly prototype objects with embedded flex sensors or even capacitive, touch-sensitive buttons, such as computer game controllers or mugs that can tell how full they are.

Interfacing with the printed devices is also quite simple – the sensors can be monitored using existing open-source electronics and freely available programming libraries. In the near future, users will also be able to directly print up the wires and cables to interconnect those devices.

The carbomorph material can be used to build 3D-printed piezoresistive flex sensors (Image: University of Warwick)

This technology could have a big impact in the educational sector, allowing engineering students to get hands-on experience and quickly design and test simple electronic devices right in the classroom. In the long run, the researchers hope, it could also open new markets for highly individualized, more ergonomic personal electronics.

The team is now working on using the same methodology to print much more complex electronic components – including the blueprints for the wires and cables.

An open-access paper detailing this advance was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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