In this week’s issue of C&EN, I wrote about how 3-D printing fever has taken hold of some folks in academia. Sure, scientists and engineers COULD keep a 3-D printer in the lab strictly for printing out a molecular model, a prototype, or even an intricate lab logo. But they’re starting to do much more with the machines.
As Lee Cronin, a chemist at Scotland’s University of Glasgow, told me, in the early days of 3-D printing, “people thought it was cool but gimmicky.” Now, though, they’re beginning to use the technique to solve problems, he added.
In the story, I describe how some scientists have used 3-D printers to make lab equipment such as centrifuges, funnels, lab jacks, and electrophoresis gel combs. These early adopters claim that the machines, which build solid objects layer by layer from materials like plastics and ceramic powders, can save labs thousands of dollars. And, they say, 3-D printers help foster an open-access scientific community that will speed the progress of research.
One research group I didn’t get to mention in my story is that of Simon J. Leigh, a chemist-turned-engineer at the U.K.’s University of Warwick. Leigh and his team are developing new materials for 3-D printers, with the goal of eventually incorporating them into devices for the lab and beyond.
For instance, late last year, the researchers published a PloS One paper detailing how they concocted “carbomorph,” a material made of the thermoplastic polycaprolactone and 15 wt% carbon black. “The aim of the project was to develop a material that could go into a printer that’s off the shelf,” Leigh says. In addition to being electrically conductive, carbomorph had the added benefit of being extrudable by a standard low-cost 3-D printer (they used a Bits from Bytes 3000).
Leigh’s team demonstrated that the substance could also be incorporated into several devices. One of these instruments was an electronic interface. The researchers added carbomorph buttons to an electrical circuit: When a user pressed one of them, its capacitance increased and triggered an electrical signal. Being able to embed sensors like these anywhere on a device rather than adding them on at defined spots in post-production could be extraordinarily useful, Leigh says.
In one, perhaps gimmicky, example, Leigh and his team printed sensor buttons into a video-game controller. “But there’s no reason why the same process could not be used to make custom interfaces for scientific equipment,” he says.
In 2011, the research team also developed a magnetic material for 3-D printing that it used to manufacture a flow sensor. Specifically, the scientists added magnetite nanoparticles to a resin matrix and printed a tiny rotor (impeller). By monitoring the small piece’s rotational speed via external magnetic field, the researchers were able to determine the speed of liquid across it.
Why go to all the trouble of designing new materials and printing devices you could buy? Leigh says it’s almost a natural “evolutionary step.” First, there were desktop computers, next there will be desktop manufacturing systems. In science, especially, Leigh adds, “you want something that’s more bespoke these days. You don’t want to waste material or time” to get the equipment you need.
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