Sep 15, 2014

Researchers have developed a way to 3D-print tough, fibre-reinforced hydrogels that mimic the strength and suppleness of human cartilage.

Hydrogels is suitable for making artificial organs for medical treatments. To be qualified for biological applications, design and synthesis of hydrogels with high mechanical strength are important. However, conventional hydrogels are structurally too weak for practical uses.

Shannon Bakarich, a PhD candidate at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science based at University of Wollongong in Australia, has come up with a solution in the form of 3D printed, fibre-reinforced hydrogels.

Their synthetic hydrogels, which consist of large amounts of water, hold much promise for use in medical bionic applications. And their softness is more readily acceptable to the body than hard materials.

To create his toughened hydrogel, Shannon simultaneously prints with two inks on a 3D printer customised with a UV curing system. One ink cures into a soft and wet hydrogel and the other, to a hard and stiff plastic which forms the reinforcing 'fibres' within the structure. It is very important to balance the properties of the two inks so that they could be printed side by side in the same print job.

"Using computer aided design software, I can make a digital model of the fibres and hydrogel matrix, tuning the mechanical properties by carefully controlling the distribution of the fibres within our structures," Shannon said.

"The printed fibres give strength to the hydrogel in the same way fibre glass gives strength to a surfboard."

Shannon's new method uses a one-step printing process instead of a two-step printing process that has been used previously by other scientists to combine the two variations in materials. The new method gives greater control over the 3D distribution of the fibres in a faster and simpler process.

To demonstrate the potential of his 3D printed, fibre-toughened hydrogels, Shannon produced a knee cartilage prototype, mimicking the hydrogel and fibre structure of a real cartilage. The 3D printed model demonstrates the potential of the process for use in developing multi-component hydrogel structures for soft robotics and medical bionics.

This research was published September 8, 2014 in Applied Materials & Interfaces.

Posted in 3D Printing Applications

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