This rabbit sculpture, the size of a typical bacterium, is one of several whimsical shapes created by a team of Japanese scientists using a new material that can be molded into complex, highly conductive 3-D structures with features just a few micrometers across.
Combined with state-of-the-art micro-sculpting techniques, the new resin holds promise for making customized electrodes for fuel cells or batteries, as well as biosensor interfaces for medical uses. The research team, which includes physicists and chemists from Yokohama National University, Tokyo Institute of Technology, and the company C-MET, Inc., presents its results in a paper published today in the Optical Society's (OSA) open-access journal Optical Materials Express
The work opens a door for researchers trying to create conductive materials in almost any complex shape at the microscopic or cellular level. "One of the most promising applications is 3-D microelectrodes that could interface with the brain," says Yuya Daicho, graduate student at Yokohama National University and lead author of the paper.
These brain interfaces, rows of needle-shaped electrodes pointing in the same direction like teeth on combs, can send or receive electrical signals from neurons and can be used for deep brain stimulation and other therapeutic interventions to treat disorders such as epilepsy, depression, and Parkinson's disease.
"Although current microelectrodes are simple 2-D needle arrays," Daicho says, "our method can provide complex 3-D electrode arrays" in which the needles of a single device have different lengths and tip shapes, giving researchers more flexibility in designing electrodes for specialized purposes. The authors also envision making microscopic 3-D coils for heating applications.
Currently, researchers have access to materials that can be used to make complex 3-D structures. But the commercially available resins that work best with modern 3-D shaping techniques do not respond to carbonization, a necessary part of the electrode preparation process. In this stage, a structure is baked at a temperature high enough to turn its surface to carbon. The process of "carbonizing," or charring, increases the conductivity of the resin and also increases its surface area, both of which make it a good electrode. Unfortunately, this process also destroys the resin's shape; a sphere becomes an unrecognizable charred blob. What researchers needed were new materials that could be crafted using 3-D shaping techniques but that would also survive the charring process.
The Japanese team, led by Daicho and his advisor Shoji Maruo, sought to develop materials that would fit these needs. Trained as a chemist, Daicho developed a light-sensitive resin that included a material called Resorcinol Diglycidyl Ether (RDGE), typically used to dilute other resins but never before used in 3-D sculpting. The new mixture had a unique advantage over other compounds - it was a liquid, and therefore potentially suitable for manipulation using the preferred 3-D sculpting methods.