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3D printers in research

July 24, 2012 | Author: AAAS member -- Padmini Rangamani, Postdoctoral fellow, UC Berkeley
3D printers in research
Example of replication of a real object by means of 3D scanning and 3D printing. (Photo: ALoopingIcon from Wikipedia Commons)

3D printers have been around for a few years now, so they are not new technology per se. However, their impact on different fields on research seems to be increasing substantially. In fact, they were featured as the geeky gadget of the week on NPR's Science Friday. So, what are these devices, how do they work and how are they impacting research? The history behind these devices can be found here; in this article, we highlight the uses of this technology in research.

3D printers are machines that add material one layer at a time based on a digital image provided. In some ways, this is the opposite of what a machine shop would do. In a machine shop, you provide the drawing and the technician takes a block of material and starts chipping away to get to the final product. In a 3D printer, the 'ink' is added on, one layer at a time, till the prescribed shape is reached. This simple description does not capture the complexities of the process but it gives us a picture of how it works. 

3D printing is more than a fancy new device in this fast changing technological world. 3D printing has been the focus of some exciting new research lately. One group in Scotland has used 3D printers to build customizable chemical reactors, where the printer 'ink' contained the catalyst. The resulting reactor walls were now able to catalyze the reactions. This means that the researchers can now customize the shape, size and catalysts parameters to get effective reaction efficiency. In another case, the technology was used to build a network of blood vessels by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and MIT. Neanderthal skull models, model of DNA binding proteins are all examples of how this device is being used in research.

The Molecular Graphics Lab at the Scripps institute is one of the leaders in the field of using 3D printing for visualizing molecules. That means instead of now looking at a protein structure shown in different orientations on paper and building a mental three-dimensional picture of the protein, you may soon be printing three dimensional structure of the molecule straight from your computer.