The latest game being changed by 3-D printing: chemistry. A researcher at the University of Glasgow, frustrated with the inability to modify standardized labware to fit the requirements of his experiments, has created a new breed of easily customizable laboratory containers that can be printed in silicone-based bathroom sealant.
The problem: chemistry is a diverse and changing field, but the tools used to execute it are more or less fixed. Conventional flasks, beakers, and reaction chambers are the norm in the chemistry lab, so when a chemist wishes to create a highly nuanced experiment he or she has to build something from a pre-defined universe of tools–tools that often don’t get the job done.
So Leroy Cronin, the U. of Glasgow researcher, began looking for a better way. By teaming up with Turlif Vilbrandt, co-founder of a 3-D printing software designer in Norway, he was able to create a system that uses a sub-$2,000 3-D printer and free, open source software to print one-off reaction vessels in silicone-based sealant, the kind commonly sold at hardware stores for sealing up bathrooms.
Now, the team can quickly draft and print custom labware–which they are calling “reactionware”–that is application-specific. They can also take advantage of other printable technologies–printable catalyst-laced ink, printable electronics, printable fiber optics, etc.–to create labware that has embedded sensors and technologies that can gather various different data from a single experiment in parallel, thus cutting down on the total number of experiments a researcher has to run to gather an acceptable amount of data.
The researchers are now looking into other materials, as bathroom sealant isn’t really appropriate for many experiments, especially those requiring high temperatures or pressures or that deal with caustic chemicals. Cronin imagines a day when researchers and perhaps even consumers could download 3-D printing instructions as easily as downloading a smartphone app, use the program to print the desired reaction chamber at home or in the lab, and be able to have a customized, fully tested and characterized chemical reaction at their fingertips within just a few minutes. Think printable pharmaceuticals or other beneficial chemicals for consumers or the military, among other things.