Written by Jonny Williamson
The research team, headed by Professor Lee Cronin, Gardiner Chair of Chemistry at the University, has used 3D printing technology to create ‘reactionware’, tiny vessels for chemical reactions which are made from a polymer gel. The chemicals which propel these reactions are already built into the vessels, though that in itself is not a new concept often seen in large-scale chemical engineering.
However this is the first time such a vessel has been created on a laboratory scale and could transform the way scientists, doctors and even the general public create chemicals.
Professor Cronin said of the research:
“It’s long been possible to have lab materials custom-made to include windows or electrodes, for example, but it’s been expensive and time-consuming. We can fabricate these reactionware vessels using a 3D printer in a relatively short time. Even the most complicated vessels we’ve built have only taken a few hours.”
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Although still in the early stages of development, Professor Cronin is optimistic about the future possibilities the new printing process could lead to.
“By making the vessel part of the reaction process, the distinction between the reactor and the reaction becomes hazy. It’s a new way for chemists to think, and it gives us very specific control over reactions because we can continually refine the design of our vessels as required.
“3D printers are becoming increasingly common and affordable. It’s entirely possible that, in the future, we could see chemical engineering technology which is prohibitively expensive today filter down to laboratories and small commercial enterprises.”
Even more importantly, Professor Cronin suggests that 3D printers could revolutionise access to healthcare in the developing world, “allowing diagnosis and treatment to happen in a much more efficient and economical way than is possible now.”
“We could even see 3D printers reach into homes and become fabricators of domestic items, including medications. Perhaps with the introduction of carefully-controlled software ‘apps’, we could see consumers have access to a personal drug designer they could use at home to create the medication they need.”
Professor Cronin’s paper, ‘Integrated 3D-printed reactionware for chemical synthesis and analysis’ is published in Nature Chemistry – a monthly scientific journal.