A 3D printer.

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Inspired by nature, researchers at Washington State University have developed a new system for 3D printing that “precisely controls a material’s architecture from the nanoscale to centimeters—with results that closely mimic the intricate architecture of natural materials like wood and bone.” The team is filing for a patent after having published their work in Science Advances.

The method can print incredibly small objects of great complexity by creating a fog that contains particles of whatever material is needed. So far, they’ve tested it with silver because it’s so easy to work with. But any material that can be crushed into nanoparticles can be used.

Here’s how it works. The liquid in the fog evaporates, leaving the nanoparticles where they were deposited. The process is inspired by natural events that occur in West African deserts, where fog containing sulfur evaporates and leaves flower-like objects known as desert roses.

Researchers are then able to create “microscaffolds that contain solid truss members like a bridge, spirals, electronic connections that resembles accordion bellows, [and] doughnut-shaped pillars.” These structures have a very large surface area for their size. As such, they are very strong.

The resulting materials could have quite a few uses moving forward, including: lightweight ultrastrong materials, catalytic converters, supercapacitors, and even biological scaffolds. The last is perhaps the most interesting, as it implies the ability to better help biological material heal or structure itself in the first place, and could have a big impact on the creation and use of things like replacement hips.

Researchers plan to turn their attention to creating porous anodes for batteries, which could greatly increase the speed and capacity of batteries using such anodes because they could use higher energy materials. Because such a wide variety of materials can be rendered down to the nanoparticle level, the technology could have an extremely wide range of applications.