3D Printing Goes Chemical

In Technology by Daniel NewmanLeave a Comment

3D Printing Goes ChemicalThe 3D printer has come a very long way from printing simple plastic shapes. Now a number of industries are using the technology to create items of varying size, complexity, and composition.

BMW has been experimenting with 3D printing for more than a decade, and other major car manufacturers are beginning to use the technology. Embracing 3D printing enables these companies to create certain parts on demand, instead of devoting warehouse space to keeping them in stock.

As 3D printing technology advances and becomes more widespread, companies are finding more uses for it. Manufacturers wouldn’t need to ship parts created this way over long distances either. Instead, the company could send a blueprint to a nearby facility equipped with a 3D printer, and, presto, the facility could print the part.

Recent developments have brought printing to the edge of “chemputing.” Chemputing is the concept of using 3D printers to create chemicals rather than objects. The possible applications for such technology boggle my mind.

Printing Pharmaceuticals

Professor Lee Cronin is one of the driving forces behind the chemputer concept. Someday he hopes to create inorganic life, but one of the more immediate offshoot projects he is involved with is the creation of downloadable, printable chemistry. The ultimate aim of such chemistry would be to allow people to print their prescription drugs at home.

Cronin’s team in Scotland has already been manufacturing large molecules. His process of printing chemicals involves the use of “chemical inks” that are simple reagents that form more complex molecules when mixed. Cronin points out that nearly all pharmaceuticals comprise a limited number of elements—carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen—mixed with other readily available ingredients.

The prototype chemputer Cronin and his team have created not only controls the exact sequences and calibrations of the inks, but also the environment in which the inks react to each other. This allows them to create printable “labs” that would not only produce specific combinations of inks, but would also control the ratios and rates at which the combinations occur.

For now, Cronin’s chemputer has only been able to produce simple inorganic molecules, but Cronin has an eye on the future. He envisions printing chemical catalysts directly into the walls of his printable labs. Now, his team is working on creating simple pharmaceuticals (e.g., ibuprofen). If (when, in my opinion) they are able to do so, the possibilities will be endless and could change many aspects of human life.

Creating Replacement Organs

Printing pharmaceuticals is one medical aspect of 3D printing, but medical researchers are working on another, grander project—printing body parts. In truth, the difficulty in creating working body parts through 3D printing lies not in the complexity of the structures, but in the materials necessary.

Biological material is needed to print organs, a process for which medical researchers have coined the phrase “bioprinting.” Researchers have already overcome some of the challenges inherent in using biological material this way. In 2013, a young girl received a trachea “printed” from her own stem cells.

As time passes and advancements in 3D printing and bioprinting occur, we could envision a future in which severe injuries—injuries that, right now, result in death or permanent disfigurement—could be healed with replacement body parts.

Growing Aircrafts from Chemicals

Chemical printing does not just apply to people. British aircraft manufacturers are already using parts created by 3D printers, but scientists and engineers believe this can extend even further. BAE Systems and the University of Glasgow believe that Professor Cronin’s chemputer technology could eventually “grow” drones.

This process would reduce the time for creating such aircrafts from months or years to only weeks. It would also reduce the cost to a fraction of what it takes to build such an aircraft today. While the idea of growing swarms of unmanned drones is still a long way into our future, it’s a slightly frightening prospect. However, it does demonstrate the vast applications chemputing could someday have.

The 3D printing of chemicals and biological materials promises to revolutionize our future—and with people like Cronin and his team at work, maybe the near future. The next few generations may be able to print their own pharmaceuticals, receive replacement body parts, and be able to grow vehicles. We live in an exciting time.

This article was brought to you in part by HP, Inc. Opinions and thoughts are those of the author. 

Photo Credit: cdhfinechemical via Compfight cc

Daniel Newman is the Principal Analyst of Futurum Research and the CEO of Broadsuite Media Group. Living his life at the intersection of people and technology, Daniel works with the world’s largest technology brands exploring Digital Transformation and how it is influencing the enterprise. From Big Data to IoT to Cloud Computing, Newman makes the connections between business, people and tech that are required for companies to benefit most from their technology projects, which leads to his ideas regularly being cited in CIO.Com, CIO Review and hundreds of other sites across the world. A 5x Best Selling Author including his most recent “Building Dragons: Digital Transformation in the Experience Economy,” Daniel is also a Forbes, Entrepreneur and Huffington Post Contributor. MBA and Graduate Adjunct Professor, Daniel Newman is a Chicago Native and his speaking takes him around the world each year as he shares his vision of the role technology will play in our future.