10 Ways 3D Printers Are Advancing Science

moon base
©. Foster + Partners
3d printer photo

© Jaymi Heimbuch

3D printers, the rapid building machines that create objects from plastic filament based on software-generated designs, are really having their moment. From robots to garden tools, the machines have been used to produce a wide variety of objects -- some useful, some not. But most often 3D printing is celebrated for its vast potential for manufacturing items as they're needed and in the place they'll be used.

That may be as simple as a replacement part for something that has broken to things far more complex like these magic arms that allowed a little girl to regain control of her arms. In fact, one of the areas that 3D printing has had its biggest impact is in the science field where the ability to customize and instantly create a tool or new medical device has proven to be quite powerful. From small labs to NASA, researchers are using the technology to advance their knowledge and perform their jobs more easily.

Below are 10 ways 3D printers are being used to advance science.

Turning Moon Rock Into Tools

moon base
©. Foster + Partners

© Foster + Partners

It may be far off, but setting up a lunar base could be made much simpler by using a 3D printer to build it from local materials. Industrial partners including renowned architects Foster + Partners have joined with ESA to test the feasibility of 3D printing using lunar soil.

“3D printing offers a potential means of facilitating lunar settlement with reduced logistics from Earth,” said Scott Hovland of ESA’s human spaceflight team.

“The new possibilities this work opens up can then be considered by international space agencies as part of the current development of a common exploration strategy.”

Engineering researchers at Washington State University on behalf of NASA are also investigating whether 3D printing could be used to make objects from moon rock. Why? Well, since space travel is so expensive, there are limits to what can be brought on space craft. If we establish any type of outpost on the moon or Mars, there will need to be a way to make needed objects or repair existing objects from available materials.

Making Tags to Track Big Fish

fish tag photo


The technology company CSIRO is working on creating better tracking tags using 3D printing, which will create tags quickly and cheaply to study large fish species like tuna and shark. Those species are at risk of extinction from overfishing, so any new technology that can help with gaining that knowledge in a more efficient manner is great.

CSIRO says, "The tags are printed overnight and then shipped to Tasmania where marine scientists are trialing them. Tags are made of titanium for several reasons: the metal is strong, resists the salty corrosiveness of the marine environment, and is biocompatible (non-toxic to living tissues). One of the advantages of 3D printing is that it enables rapid manufacture of multiple design variations which can then be tested simultaneously."

Replicating Fossils

dinosaur-skeleton photo

Dinosaur models in museums are rarely real bone; it is too fragile. most of them are made by clay modelling, molding and casting. It can be hard on the original fossils, it's expensive and it takes a lot of time. But this is changing now that palaeontologists are printing out dinosaurs and other fossils. Scientists are 3D scanning the pieces of bones and then virtually building a model of complete bones, which takes much less time and money and the real fossils get to stay safe and preserved.

Researchers at Drexel University are taking that a step further by not only 3D printing dinosaur fossils for museums, but using scaled-down replicas to build full robotic versions of the animals in order to study how they moved and responded to environmental stresses.

3D Printing Skin

second skin

© University of Toronto

Researchers at the University of Toronto have come up with a new way of making skin in a 3D printer. They've developed a printer that dispenses live skin cells instead of plastic filament.

The University of Toronto says, "The one-step device is believed to be the first in the world to create tissue rapidly on a large scale – important in repairing skin destroyed by burns or other major wounds. It’s hoped that, in future, instead of traditional skin grafts that remove patients’ own healthy skin for transplant, patients will receive machine-made skin grafts that are safer, faster and cheaper."

Creating Lab Supplies Cheaply

3d printed lab supplies

© Russell Neches

A graduate student in Johnathan Eisen's lab at UC Davis, Russel Neches, recently discovered that instead of paying high dollar for lab supplies that were essentially little pieces of plastic, he could put the 3D printer they had to good use and save them time and money on ordering supplies. In the time it took to eat an enchilada, he printed out gel combs that were a tiny fraction of the price of the ones he recently had to reorder and they worked even better because he was able to customize them to their exact needs.

"It's also important that I was able to make some minor improvements to the design," he says. "The printed combs fit into the gel mold a bit better than the 'official' ones."

Printing Embryonic Stem Cells

stem cells

© Allen Faulkner-Jones

Embryonic stem cells (hESCs) are more fragile than other cells, so finding a way to print them has been tricky, but researchers at Heriot-Watt University have developed a new valve based technology that is gentle and sensitive enough that they can work with the delicate cells. This breakthrough is huge since hESCs are considered the key to cures for many diseases.

"We found that the valve-based printing is gentle enough to maintain high stem cell viability, accurate enough to produce spheroids of uniform size, and most importantly, the printed hESCs maintained their pluripotency - the ability to differentiate into any other cell type."

Making Lifelike Ears

cornell ear

© Lindsay France/Cornell University

Cornell University has 3D printed lifelike ears that may be used to treat birth defects like microtia and help people who have lost or damaged an ear. The product was created using 3D printing and gels made from living cells and is "practically identical to the human ear." The cells were gathered from collagen in rat tails and cartilage from cow's ears.

Another amazing feature of this ear is how fast it can be created. Researcher Lawrence Bonassar say, "It takes half a day to design the mold, a day or so to print it, 30 minutes to inject the gel, and we can remove the ear 15 minutes later. We trim the ear and then let it culture for several days in nourishing cell culture media before it is implanted."

DIYing Rocket Engines

diy rocket from rocket moonlighting

© Rocket Moonlighting

A competition to develop 3D-printed rocket motors that could carry a nanosatellite payload into low Earth orbit is capitalizing is a tinkerer's dream, but it's also a great way to tap the crowd for a new and inexpensive way to boost these tiny satellites that range from the size of a computer chip to a smart phone to a pumpkin into space. The company Sunglass is sponsoring the competition. All entries have to be open-source and use 3D-printed and safe materials.

Along those lines, NASA is also using a specialized 3D laser printing system to produce intricate metal parts such as rocket engine components for its next-generation Space Launch System (SLS). The method called “selective laser melting “ (SLM) promises to streamline fabrication and significantly reduce production costs.

Building Artery Networks

3d printed artery

© University of Pennsylvania

A team including researchers from University of Pennsylvania and MIT has used a RepRap 3D printer and a custom extruder head to print a filament of sugar and live cells to create an artery network for artificial tissues. The filament is composed of sucrose, glucose and dextran which is later encased in a bio-gel containing living cells. The whole mixture is deposited and then the sugars are dissolved, leaving a network of artery-like channels remaining. Tissue living in the gel can then receive oxygen and nutrients through the hollow structures.

The technique has already increased the number of functional liver cells the team has been able to maintain in artificial tissues. Researchers think the technique could help develop lab-grown organs in the future.

3D Printing Skulls

3d printed skull

© Oxford Performance Materials

Some people have gone the route of 3D printing their own prosthetic pieces, but in the case of a patient who needed a replacement for 75 percent of his skull, it was better left to some experts. Oxford Performance Materials crafted an artificial skull based on a 3D scan of the patient's head complete with holes meant to encourage the growth of new cells and bone. According to Oxford about 500 people in the US suffering from injuries could benefit from this technology each month, from construction workers to soldiers.