With all the well-deserved hype and buzz surrounding 3-D printing, most of the materials used were limited either to plastics or a few types of metal alloys. However, in the past few months and years, scientists and engineers around the world have made significant gains in broadening the 3-D printing palette to include a variety of living and non-living materials.
Leading the charge is Harvard University materials scientist Jennifer Lewis, who is using materials to 3-D print objects that can exhibit “mechanical properties, electrical conductivity, or optical traits.” Together, these types of materials will lead to the development of 3-D printed structures and materials that can interact with our bodies and the environment around them.
In the picture above, Lewis and her team have experimented making elastic gloves that have sensors printed inside that can detect strain. In time, Lewis envisions additional applications such as “printed sensors fabricated on plastic patches that athletes could one day wear to detect concussions and measure violent impacts.”
Lewis is also paving the way to someday 3-D print fully functioning organs and tissues made out of living cells. Although many challenges remain based on preserving and maintaining the integrity of cells as they’re pushed through a printer’s nozzle, Lewis has recently completed the successful printing of a complex network of blood vessels.
The secret behind Lewis’ novel 3-D printing technology includes several different inks composed of different materials or cells. These inks are then layered in a systematic manner to construct the intended structures, components, and cells.
No doubt, these are exciting developments in the world of 3-D printing that will have far reaching impacts on science, medicine, and technology for decades to come.