A 3D printing method outlined by researchers at the University of Florida demonstrates a way of making comfortable, flexible, strong and affordable implants for patients.

Using liquid silicone, the method is capable of creating devices that can be implanted within the body, performing fluid draining and supportive functions needed in hospitals on a daily basis.

Demonstration of water easily passing through a 3D printed silicone tube network. Screenshot via UF Soft Matter on YouTube

Demonstration of water easily passing through a 3D printed silicone tube network. Screenshot via UF Soft Matter on YouTube

A process like oil and water

The advantage of this method is that it directly manipulates liquid silicone, rather than relying on injection molding for a specific shape. University of Florida researchers manage this by 3D printing the silicone in a jelly-like block of supporting material.

The idea came about in the group’s ongoing research into tissue engineering. When 3D printing for such studies, hydrogels are commonly used to support organic substances such as living cells. However, as hydrogels are composed almost entirely of water, 3D printing an oily substance silicone into it is problematic.

And so supporting blocks are made from organic chemicals that separate in water the same way oil does. The chemicals are assembled into a gel-like substance by a “light mineral oil”, allowing the liquid silicone to be freeform 3D printed inside.

The speeded-up liquid silicone 3D printing process, performed in a co-polymer block. Clip via UF Soft Matter on YouTube

Cutting the current cost of medicine

Speaking to Steve Orlando for University of Florida News Thomas Angelini, associate professor and co-author of the study explains,

Once we started printing oily silicone inks into the oily microgel materials, the printed parts held their shapes. We were able to achieve really excellent 3D printed silicone parts – the best I’ve seen.

Speaking to the potential cost-saving attribute of the method Angelini adds,

The public is more sensitive to the high costs of medical care than ever before. Almost monthly we see major media and public outcry against high health care costs, wasteful spending in hospitals, exorbitant pharmaceutical costs. Everybody agrees on the need to reduce costs in medicine.

3D printed silicone demand

Use of silicone is a technique in demand in the 3D printing industry as the material exhibits resistant, insulating, flexible and biocompatible qualities suitable for a range of applications. In studies by the McAlpine Research Group at the University of Minnesota, silicone 3D printing is utilized as support material for micro sensors to be used on the body. Worldwide chemical specialists Wacker Chemie are also invested in silicone 3D printing capabilities using a droplet-based approach.

A full article on the University of Florida’s research, titled Self-assembled micro-organogels for 3D printing silicone structuresis available to read open-access in the journal Science Advances (10 May 2017). It is co-authored by Christopher S. O’Bryan, Tapomoy Bhattacharjee, Samuel Hart, Christopher P. Kabb, Kyle D. Schulze, Indrasena Chilakala, Brent S. Sumerlin, W. Gregory Sawyer, and Thomas E. Angelini.

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Featured image: A 3D printed silicone tube network allowing gas to pass through in a flow test. Photo by Christopher O’Bryan

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