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How Spray-On Everything Could Radically Transform Manufacturing

Soon, the days of building things from bigger blocks of things—forging, sculpting, whittling, carving, cutting, etching—may well be be gone. The push toward building from the bottom, of laying down exactly what you need rather than cutting away that which you don't, is underway in force.

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Photo: Jo Marcom

Soon, the days of building things from bigger blocks of things—forging, sculpting, whittling, carving, cutting, etching—may well be be gone. The push toward building from the bottom, of laying down exactly what you need rather than cutting away that which you don’t, is fully underway.

The idea of printing out thin films of metal has been a mainstay manufacturing technique of the electronics industry for years through a process called vapor deposition, but new research is rapidly expanding the range of materials that can be sprayed on or printed out. Traditional techniques need tons of energy and very specialized conditions, but the new push is bringing those requirements (and costs) down, and in the process creating some surprising new materials.

For instance, this liquid developed by Stanford researchers can be laid down by an inkjet printer, and then turned into a a highly conductive jelly. Its creators think it could be useful for “allowing biological systems to communicate with technological hardware” — i.e., building cyborgs.

In energy, Technology Review’s David Zax reports on  a new material, created by New Energy Technologies, to capture the sun’s rays that could be sprayed on to windows for use in houses and office buildings.

And what to do with all this new-found electricity rolling off your windows? Well, store it in spray-on batteries.

The push is not relegated to high-tech toys, either. Scientists recently came up with a spray-on organic coating to protect fruit from spoiling, and some are working on printing replacement organs to shore up the supply for transplant surgery.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Ulrich Boser on “Diamonds on Demand”

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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