There is the potential for 3D printing to revolutionize the way we make almost anything. This year, I expect it will become faster and cheaper, with new materials that enhance commercial possibilities.
If 3D printing is disruptive, nanoprinting is potentially more disruptive.
Nanoprinting Medical Devices
Engineers at the University of Maryland recently created the first 3D-printed fluid circuit element that is so tiny that 10 of the elements could feasibly rest on the width of a human hair (shown below). The diode, which ensures that fluids move in a single direction, is an important feature for products like implantable devices that are used to provide various therapies for the human body.
This microfluidic diode represents one of the first uses of 3D nanoprinting; it was successful because it broke through previous cost and complexity barriers that hindered progress and advancement for areas such as personalized medicine and drug delivery.
Ryan Sochol, an assistant professor in mechanical engineering and bioengineering at the University of Maryland's James Clark School of Engineering, stated:
Just as shrinking electric circuits revolutionized the field of electronics, the ability to dramatically reduce the size of 3D-printed microfluidic circuitry sets the stage for a new era in fields like pharmaceutical screening, medical diagnostics, and microrobotics.
Nanotechnology in and of itself is not brand new, but getting to it has had its challenges. Recently, scientists were able to utilize the emerging technology to fabricate medical devices, more specifically what they call "organ-on-a-chip" systems. The problem was the complexity of introducing pharmaceuticals, nutrients, and other fluids into such microscopic environments without problems such as leakage.
In addition, the cost of preventing those complexities rendered the technology prohibitive for most applications as the fluid control required needed to be very precise.
Thanks to UMD graduate students Andrew Lamont and Abdullah Alsharhan, the circuit was printed using a process known as sol-gel. This allowed them to anchor the diode to the walls of a microscale channel. The channel was printed with a common polymer and its very small and tiny architecture was printed directly inside the channel, layer by layer, working its way from the top of the channel downward.
In the end, the result was a fully-sealed, 3D, microfluidic diode that was fabricated at a fraction of the cost and time the previous approaches required.
One of the benefits of this 3D-printed circuit is its strong seal, which was achieved to protect the circuit from contamination. It also ensures that any fluid pushed through the diode will not be released in the wrong place or time. The diode was further strengthened by reshaping its tiny walls.
According to Sochol, previous methods had been a burden to researchers as they were sacrificing time and cost to build like-kind components. This new approach enables them to achieve the necessary requirements and still work within the constraints of the design.
Ultimately, the result has been a 3D nano-printed, very complex fluid system that is printed faster and at a lower cost with much less effort expended.
While it may sound very complex and complicated, the combination of nanotechnology and 3D printing will make a huge difference in fields like medicine and pharmaceuticals. It is opening up vast new areas of progress and will likely benefit patients and treatment applications in the years to come.
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