3-D printing innovation enables molecular-scale printing

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Recently a team at the University of Illinois in Urbana headed by Dr. Michael Burke tested the limits of tiny 3-D printing technology and made a microscopic breakthrough that has enormous implications for the future of 3-D printing.

With this advancement, intricate live organ tissue and tiny single cell microchips might soon be created with a simple mouse click.

The process follows the basic building block strategy that is the foundation of 3-D printing technology. However, unlike macroscopic injection, which implements building blocks that are typically fifty to one hundred micrometers in diameter, molecular 3-D printing uses building blocks that are only a few micrometers across.

To give some perspective to these measurements, a hair with a diameter of 40 micrometers is visible to the naked human eye, while particles that are less than 20 micrometers in diameter are invisible.

Not surprisingly, moving these tiny pieces into position requires a very precise 3-D printing mechanism. In order to remove interference during placement, the 3-D printer is outfitted with a special rinsing unit that washes away the excess building block material.

The technology follows an assembly mechanism similar to Lego brick construction. The specialized machine snaps each piece in place. Then the building blocks engage a common connecting factor that allows them to merge together in a single, simple chemical reaction to become a tiny molecule.

Using this technology, Burke and his team have successfully built fourteen types of small molecules, using the same machine for each. The team hopes that with further development its molecular 3-D printer will be able to produce almost any small molecule.

Another group of researchers from Vienna University of Technology has developed a similar technique. The process, called 3D Photographing, uses a highly precise laser to position the building blocks in a hydrogel mesh.

Like its name implies, the hydrogel mesh is a jello-like substance consisting of a loosely connected framework of macromolecules. The mesh forms a structural backbone for the attachment of the building blocks.

Once the building blocks are in place, the laser breaks the weak macromolecule bonds, creating a reactive void which the building blocks can fill.

Right now the technology developed by both teams is being implemented to form tiny molecules for use in medical drugs. The current synthesis process consists of step by step chemical reactions that require years for expert chemists to perfect.

It is hoped that molecular 3-D printing will one day replace the present method of chemical synthesis.  In a recent video release, Dr. Burke explained how his research will help speed up the synthesis process.

“We wanted to take a very complex process, chemical synthesis, and make it simple. Simplicity enables automation, which, in turn, can broadly enable discovery and bring the substantial power of making molecules to nonspecialists,” Burke said.

There is little doubt that success in molecular 3-D printing will mark a milestone in 3-D printer development. It’s even possible, says Burke, that “achieving this goal could do for chemistry what 3-D printing did for engineering, make it fast, flexible and accessible to everybody.”

Whether molecular 3-D printers will soon replace current synthesis methods or not, it is safe to say that this type of 3-D printer will be in the vanguard of 3-D innovation for years to come.