July 17, 2012

Ink-Jet Frustration Relief Inspired By Human Eye Research

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Printers have come a long way in the past twenty-years, but one thing they haven't lacked generation to generation are plenty of frustration to go along with them.

Engineers from the University of Missouri are helping out the short-fused man by taking away one frustration from ink-jet printers and developing a printer nozzle that prevents clogs.

The nozzle cover we invented was inspired by the human eye,” said Jae Wan Kwon, associate professor in the College of Engineering. “The eye and an ink jet nozzle have a common problem: they must not be allowed to dry while, simultaneously, they must open. We used biomimicry, the imitation of nature, to solve human problems.”

The invention uses a drop of silicone oil to cover the opening of the nozzle when not in use, similar to the film of oil that keeps a thin layer of tears from evaporating off the eye.

Eyelids spread the film of oil over the layer of tears on the surface of the human eye, but at a tiny scale of the ink jet nozzle, mechanical shutters like eyelids would not work.  Instead, the droplet of oil for the nozzle is easily moved in and out of place by an electric field.

By unclogging the nozzle, more ink can be used, helping to eliminate the need to waste ink that gets stuck once dried-up ink keeps it from outputting towards the blank paper.

“Other printing devices use similar mechanisms to ink jet printers,” Kwon said in a press release. “Adapting the clog-free nozzle to these machines could save businesses and researchers thousands of dollars in wasted materials."

Kwon told redOrbit in an email that his technique is able to be applied for use in various printheads.

"For example, biological tissue printers, which may someday be capable of fabricating replacement organs, squirt out living cells to form biological structures," he said in a release. "Those cells are so expensive that researchers often find it cheaper to replace the nozzles rather than waste the cells. Clog-free nozzles would eliminate the costly replacements.”

He told redOrbit that some companies are interested in his design, but he wasn't able to disclose the names of them.

As far as when will we be able to buy printers that help save ink, Kwon said it depends.

"If there is enough interest and support, it can be in a market in a few years," he told redOrbit in the email.

A paper documenting the discovery was published in the Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems.