Researchers at MIT have successfully created a mini vacuum pump with 3D printing.
Mass spectrometers have long been valuable tools for precise chemical analysis, finding applications ranging from assessing drinking water safety to detecting toxins in patients’ blood.
However, building a cost-effective and portable mass spectrometer that can be deployed in remote areas has proven challenging, largely due to the difficulties in miniaturizing the necessary vacuum pump.
In a remarkable step forward,
researchers at MIT have harnessed the power of additive manufacturing, commonly known as 3D printing, to tackle this problem head-on.
They successfully 3D printed a miniature version of a vacuum pump called a peristaltic pump, that is about the size of a human fist.
The pump they created is capable of generating and maintaining a vacuum with an order of magnitude lower pressure than traditional dry, rough pumps that operate at atmospheric pressure without requiring liquid.
The unique design, printable in one pass on a multi-material 3D printer, ensures that fluid or gas doesn’t leak and minimizes heat generated during the pumping process, thereby extending the device’s lifespan.
The advantages of this innovation are manifold.
One potential application lies in incorporating the pump into portable mass spectrometers used to monitor soil contamination in isolated parts of the world. Additionally, this lightweight pump could prove ideal for geological survey equipment destined for Mars, as it reduces launch costs.
Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, a principal scientist in MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories (MTL) and the study’s senior author, exclaims, “We are talking about very inexpensive hardware that is also very capable. What we have shown here is groundbreaking, but it is only possible because it is 3D-printed. If we wanted to do this the standard way, we wouldn’t have been anywhere close.”
The team’s ingenious solution addresses the limitations of traditional peristaltic pumps, which often suffer from tube material redistribution when subjected to force by the rollers, leading to gaps and leaks. To overcome these issues, they started from scratch and leveraged the benefits of 3D printing.
A 3d Printing solution
The researchers used a multi-material 3D printer to create a flexible tube made of a special type of hyperelastic material that can withstand substantial deformation. By adding notches to the tube’s walls, they reduced stress on the material during compression, eliminating the need for redistribution. Precise 3D printing enabled them to vary the tube’s thickness, making the walls stronger at connector attachment points, further reducing stress.
Moreover, printing the entire tube in one pass was crucial to avoid post-assembly defects that could cause leaks. To achieve this, they developed a lightweight structure that stabilizes the tube during printing but can be easily removed later without damaging the device.
A key advantage of 3D printing lies in rapid prototyping, as Velásquez-García explains, “One of the key advantages of using 3D printing is that it allows us to aggressively prototype. In this case, we can print our pump in a matter of hours, and every time it can be a new design.”
Portable, yet performant
The results were impressive. The 3D-printed pump produced a vacuum with an order of magnitude lower pressure than state-of-the-art diaphragm pumps, which are widely used in the industry. This lower pressure enhances the vacuum’s quality and analytical precision.
Additionally, the pump operated at a maximum temperature of only 50 degrees Celsius, half that of traditional pumps, and required just half as much force to maintain a full tube seal.
professor of analytical chemistry at the University of Tasmania, who was not involved in the study, praised the research, saying, “This design is only possible by the use of 3D printers and nicely demonstrates the power of being able to design and create in 3D.”
Looking ahead, the researchers aim to further reduce the pump’s maximum temperature, enabling faster actuation, improved vacuum creation, and increased flow rate. Additionally, they are working on 3D printing an entire miniaturized mass spectrometer while refining the peristaltic pump’s specifications.
With this groundbreaking work, the team has showcased the true potential of additive manufacturing. While it may not solve all the world’s problems,
3D printing undoubtedly offers innovative solutions and a new paradigm for advancing technology and research.