Growing replacement body parts in the lab is a grand idea, but researchers haven´t had much luck doing it. For one thing, manually stitching together billions of cells to form a nose or a liver involves labor so tedious that it´s been impossible to finish the job before the cells die. A perfect task for the you-know-what, thought Clemson
University chemical engineer Thomas Boland in 2001 when he scrounged scrap inkjet printers from campus surplus and pressed them into service as cell-spitting robots.
By rewriting software drivers, modifying
the output tray to drop a tiny notch with each pass of the print head to build up 3-D structures, and swapping ink for hamster ovary cells and growth factor, Boland introduced the inkjet to the world of tissue engineering. To date, he´s used his printers to create half of a cat´s heart that beat in
a petri dish and tubes of cells that he hopes to one day coax into viable blood vessels. Constructing the vascular system is a crucial hurdle he´ll have to clear to meet his ultimate goal, which is to print custom organs on demand. In the next decade, Boland says we´ll see the printing of simpler tissues, including bits of cartilage for plastic surgery and cell sheets for skin grafts.
Shopping is dead-or at least it will be if 3-D CAD printing catches on
and you´re able to download and print toys, dishes, even cellphone covers right at your desk. Companies such as 3D Systems, Z Corporation and Stratasys already have high-resolution 3-D inkjet printers. The $39,900 InVision printer from Valencia, California´s 3D Systems uses a 448-nozzle print head to deposit photosensitive acrylic and wax onto an aluminum plate in microscopically thin layers, slowly building up whatever its engineers have commanded:
a prototype engine part, direct-mail figurines or a mock-up gadget. Melt off the wax molding, and you´re left with a hard acrylic object. With these and other companies fighting for market share, commercial replicators are closing in on a range that a typical consumer could afford, with rumors of a $1,000 home model on the horizon.
Putting Electronics on the Inkjet Diet
Researchers at the university of California at Berkeley are shooting for more than just plastic tchotchkes. They want to print complete digital devices-MP3 players, PDAs, cellphones-in one fell swoop, rather than assembling a gadget´s body and then adding its electronic components. Engineering professor John Canny is
circuit printing may bring the boards to stores earlier.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.