(NaturalNews) Scientists from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, report in the journal Science that they have designed a new type of 3D printer capable of creating designer molecules from scratch. This could dramatically accelerate the process by which new industrial and pharmaceutical chemicals and materials are designed and tested, and even allow people to design or manufacture molecules from their own home computers, they said.
Creating new molecules is one of the fundamental processes used to develop drugs, dyes, chemicals and even solid materials. Currently, however, the only way to make a new molecule is to start with known molecules and proceed through a chain of chemical reactions until a molecule with the desired properties is produced. This process is difficult and time consuming, and is responsible for many of the costs of chemical and materials research and development.
Billions of combinations possible
The researchers report that their new 3D printer is designed to connect component molecules into combinations desired by the user. Each of the component molecules is a “building block” pre-programmed into the printer, and contains “connectors” that allow them to be attached to other building blocks. In an automated test, the printer was able to use approximately 200 separate building blocks to create new molecules in 14 different chemical classes. All the molecules produced were small, simple organic compounds.
Theoretically, the printer could be programmed to use thousands of building blocks, the researchers noted. This would allow billions of possible combinations.
The printer represents a technological breakthrough that could make it fast, cheap and easy to produce new chemicals, the researchers said. A potential use of the printer could be to custom-produce protein-like chemicals to replace missing proteins in the bodies of humans or other life forms, thereby treating many currently incurable diseases at their sources.
It could also allow the wider public — not just specialized research chemists — to produce and experiment with organic molecules for their own purposes.
“The vision is that anybody could go to a website, pick the building blocks they want, instruct their assembly through the web, and the small molecules would get synthesized and shipped,” researcher Martin Burke said.
3D printing: revolution in medicine and production?
Scientists have been eagerly exploring the implications of 3D printing for medicine. In a study published in PLOS ONE in 2013, researchers from Cornell University reported that they had used 3D printing to create a mold that allowed them to grow the most effective artificial human ear ever created.
First, the researchers took 3D photographs of real human ears using a high-definition camera and a laser scanner. This took 30 seconds. Then they used the 3D photograph and 3D printer to design and print molds, which took about a day and a half. They took 30 minutes to inject the molds with a collagen gel, then injected those molds with 250 million human cartilage cells. The cells replicated, using the collagen as a scaffold and eventually replacing it. Within three months, the researchers had ears that were nearly identical in shape and function to the originals.
Some analysts have also predicted that 3D printing may usher in a democratizing revolution in the field of production, allowing, for instance, people to print off their own organic solar cells to produce their own electricity.
One effort in the direction of democratized production is the Food Rising Mini-Farm Grow Box from the nonprofit website Food Rising. The Mini-Farm Grow Box is an open-source food production system that does not rely on electricity and can be constructed using a combination of common parts and tools, including many that can be manufactured from a 3D printer using object files posted at FoodRising.org.
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