MIT-developed 3D printed miniature vacuum pump may be used in space research

The innovative design can be printed in one pass on a multi-material 3D printer.
Nergis Firtina
3D printed miniature vacuum pump.
3D printed miniature vacuum pump.

MIT 

MIT researchers produced a tiny vacuum pump by using 3D printing technology. The pump would be a crucial part of a transportable mass spectrometer that may assist in monitoring contaminants, making distant medical diagnostics, or testing Martian soil.

As stated by MIT, they made a significant advancement in this problem's solution by using additive manufacturing. They used 3D printing to create a minuscule peristaltic pump, a kind of vacuum pump roughly the size of a human fist.

In comparison to a so-called dry, rough pump, which can function at atmospheric pressure and doesn't require liquid to create a vacuum, its pump can produce and sustain a vacuum with a pressure that is an order of magnitude lower.

The innovative design created by the researchers, which can be printed in one pass on a multi-material 3D printer, stops fluid or gas leaks while reducing heat generated by friction during pumping. This lengthens the device's lifespan.

MIT-developed 3D printed miniature vacuum pump may be used in space research
Exploded view schematic of the peristaltic vacuum pump developed in this study.

“We are talking about very inexpensive hardware that is also very capable,” says Luis Fernando Velásquez-García, a principal scientist in MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories (MTL) and senior author of a paper describing the new pump.

“With mass spectrometers, the 500-pound gorilla in the room has always been the issue of pumps. 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," he added in a press release.

Additive manufacturing methods

The peristaltic pump design was completely rethought by him and his team as they looked for methods to employ additive manufacturing to achieve advancements. First, scientists were able to create the flexible tube utilizing a multi-material 3D printer and a unique hyperelastic material that can tolerate a significant degree of deformation.

“One of the key advantages of using 3D printing is that it allows us to aggressively prototype. If you do this work in a clean room, where a lot of these miniaturized pumps are made, it takes a lot of time and a lot of money. If you want to make a change, you have to start the entire process over. In this case, we can print our pump in a matter of hours, and every time it can be a new design,” Velásquez-García says.

The pump only needed half as much effort to completely seal the tube and only reached a maximum temperature of 50 degrees Celsius, which is lower than the modern pumps employed in other research.

The goal of the research is to find ways to further lower the maximum temperature so that the tube can activate more quickly, producing a greater vacuum and a higher flow rate. Additionally, they are attempting to 3D print a complete miniature mass spectrometer. The peristaltic pump's parameters will continue to be adjusted as that device is created.

The study was published in Additive Manufacturing.

Study abstract:

This study reports the design, fabrication, and characterization of the first 3D-printed peristaltic pumps for creating and maintaining dry vacuum in compact systems. The pumps implement a novel actuator design with a notched cross-section that requires less than half the force to fully seal, making it possible to create and maintain low vacuum at low actuation speed. The devices are made via multi-material extrusion: the rigid parts of the pumps are made in polylactic acid (PLA), while the compliant parts of the pumps are made in FiberFlex 40D—a relatively new flexible material that is easier to print than mainstream Ninjaflex, even though the two materials have similar hardness. A novel, analytical, reduced order model of a peristaltic vacuum pump is also presented to provide insights into its operation, while identifying the key parameters to optimize and improve its performance. Characterization of 3D-printed FiberFlex 40D demonstrates >105 cycles fatigue life, and its hyperelastic behavior is satisfactorily described by the Mooney Rivlin model. Experimental characterization of pump prototypes demonstrates the devices attain an order of magnitude lower base pressure than a state-of-the-art, single-stage, miniaturized diaphragm vacuum pump. The technology is of interest for in-situ, low-waste manufacturing of analytical hardware far from population centers, including in-space manufacturing and space colonization.

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