3D Printing

3D Printing at the Molecular Scale

One of my personal predictions for 3D printing is that the full power of this technology sector will be unleashed as and when current R&D projects into materials at the nano scale converge with it. It is currently embryonic and probably years from coming to fruition, let’s be clear on that, but I do believe, and have for while, that this is where it is all heading, even as I enjoy the ride on the way.

Coming across the work of Professor Lee Cronin then, for me, was a huge plus. Cronin is Professor of Chemistry, Nanoscience and Chemical Complexity at the University of Glasgow. At TEDGlobal earlier this summer he presented what some see as an ambitious idea — a 3D printer that prints at the molecular level. Of course it is ambitious, but is it feasible? Ultimately, I believe it is. The question Prof Cronin asks first is two-fold: “Could we make a really cool universal chemistry set? Could we ‘app’ chemistry?”

The basic premise is a molecular 3D printer — a device that could download plans for molecules and create them, in exactly the way that existing 3D printers can download 3D models and create objects. Prof Cronin’s vision is all encompassing and involves a universal set of software, hardware and inks; all of which could be easily affordable. The software would be the product and the materials would be commodities.

The implications of this are huge — and Cronin’s particular emphasis is in medical applications, specifically drug discovery and production as well as stem cell research. He comments, “For me the cool bit, going into the future, is the idea of taking your own stem cells with your own genes and environment and printing your own medicine.”

This is not easy to wrap your head around, and we are talking many more years of research, but this is a truly inspirational pointer to what lies ahead for 3D printing in the future.

Also, for anyone wondering when and where I became convinced of the potential of nanoscale 3D printing — it was on seeing the following video a few years ago now. It’s only conceptual, but it was a real Eureka moment for me:

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