Vincent Scalfani, Science and Engineering Librarian at The University of Alabama, and Dr. Anthony Williams of the National Center of Computational Toxicology in the US, have developed a JMol searchable database of over 30,000 3D printable crystal models for use in education.

Gif shows an interactive 3D diamond molecule model in Jmol/JSmol.

The project first came about when Williams was working with the ChemSpider 2D and 3D database of molecular structures. Though effective, the complex structure of fibers can make them hard to understand simply by looking at them on a screen or on paper.

The complicated structure of a 1blu protein. Screenshot via: Jmol Crystal Symmetry Explorer

The complicated structure of a 1blu protein. Screenshot via: Jmol Crystal Symmetry Explorer

Bringing science to life

64 years ago, scientists still didn’t understand the structure of DNA. The now famous double-helix structure was only discovered in 1953 when, under the supervision of Rosalind Franklin, PhD student Raymond Gosling took an x-ray image of the molecules through a microscope. And even then, the researchers couldn’t be exactly sure of the shape that they saw. This is where ball and stick models usually come in (see below).

Two ball and stick molecule structures by Dorothy Hodgkin. Photo via: London Science Museum.

Two ball and stick molecule structures by Dorothy Hodgkin. Photo via: London Science Museum.

Being able to physically hold the structure of a protein in your hands is an invaluable educational tool, and 3D printing can help speed-up the process, as we’ve seen in previous articles on the use of model brain aneurysms used to teach surgeons, and in the visualisation of mathematical problems.

Instead of manually putting together lots of fiddly beads, Scalfani and Williams’ software means the complicated structures can simply be printed out.

A 3D printed protein molecule (right) and its digital counterpart (left) Screenshot via: MarkHoelzer on Youtube

A 3D printed protein molecule (right) and its digital counterpart (left) Screenshot via: MarkHoelzer on Youtube

3D printing models and tutorials available online

In Scalfani’s research, 3D printing the molecular structures has been tested with a range of industrial and desktop based 3D printers, including 3D Systems, the Stratasys Mojo and Makerbot. The 3D files are also easily convertible into the whole range of object files and are supported by Jmol interactive tutorials, which was developed by Bob Hanson.

Molecule models printed in ABS P430 XL plastic on a Stratasys uPrint SE. Figure via: Anthony Williams

Molecule models printed in ABS P430 XL plastic on a Stratasys uPrint SE. Figure via: Anthony Williams

For more information about the production process and the models the article Programmatic conversion of crystal structures into 3D printable files using Jmol is now available online.

Featured image shows the 3D printed molecular structure of Pyridinylmethylene)hydrazino. Figure via: Anthony Williams.

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