Aug 27, 2015 | By Alec

Robots and 3D printing are a combination that goes right back to the dawn of the 3D printer, but we rarely see them combined with a microscope. Because that is what you’ll need to see the 3D printed smart ‘microfish’ robots, developed by a team of researchers from the University of California to inject in bloodstreams and perform complex medical tasks. The diverse capabilities attributed to them include functioning as sensors, detoxification, directed drug delivery and much more.

The research behind these microfish was led by Professors Shaochen Chen and Joseph Wang of the NanoEngineering Department at the University of California, San Diego, and was published in the journal Advanced Materials (Aug. 12 issue).

These fascinating microfish could be called a medical revolution. They are essentially complex, slightly fish-shaped robots capable of efficiently swimming in liquids. Chemically powered by hydrogen peroxide, they can also be magnetically controlled. The researchers also performed a series of interesting demonstrations. To prove their capacity, researchers filled the microfish bodies with toxin-neutralizing nanoparticles. Specifically, they mixed in polydiacetylene (PDA) nanoparticles, which are capable of capturing harmful pore-forming toxins. During the test, they found that the microfish were able to quickly and efficiently clean up localized toxins – something visible because the PDA nanoparticles become fluorescent and emit a red-colored light when bound to toxin molecules.

Obviously, this is just one of the many possible applications for these 3D printed microfish. ‘The neat thing about this experiment is that it shows how the microfish can doubly serve as detoxification systems and as toxin sensors,’ said Zhu in a press release. ‘Another exciting possibility we could explore is to encapsulate medicines inside the microfish and use them for directed drug delivery,’ said Jinxing Li, a nanoengineering Ph.D. student in Wang's research group.

Now you might respond by saying that there are plenty of microrobots out there already, so what makes these so special? First of all, you are correct. There are a wide number out there already, usually manufacturered with locomotion mechanisms such as as microjet engines, microdrillers and microrockets. However, most of these are incapable of performing complex tasks because they are usually very basic spherical or cylindrical structures. They are also inorganic homogenous objects.

In contrast, this project has created microrobots capable of a lot more. The researchers were able to add functional nanoparticles into certain parts of the bodies, as well as platinum nanoparticles in the tails which react with the hydrogen peroxide to move forward. The magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles in the heads of the fish, finally, allow for magnetic steering. ‘We have developed an entirely new method to engineer nature-inspired microscopic swimmers that have complex geometric structures and are smaller than the width of a human hair. With this method, we can easily integrate different functions inside these tiny robotic swimmers for a broad spectrum of applications,’ co-first author Wei Zhu, another nanoengineering Ph.D. student, said.

So how are these 3D printed? Well, it all relies on a new manufacturing method called called microscale continuous optical printing (or μCOP), which has been developed by Chen's team. Its very quick, scalable, precise and flexible. Hundreds of microfish are 3D printed within seconds, each being 120 microns long and 30 microns thick. And being operated through computers, they were able to experiment with a number of aquatic shapes, including that of sharks and manta rays. With our 3D printing technology, we are not limited to just fish shapes. We can rapidly build microrobots inspired by other biological organisms such as birds,’ said Zhu.

This interesting 3D printing technology revolves around digital micromirror array device (DMD) chip, containing about two million micromirrors. Each is controlled individually by an algorithm to project UV light in the desired fish-shaped pattern. The photosensitive material then, as during SLA 3D printing, solidifies upon exposure. By layering this material on top of itself, the fish are 3D printed. ‘This method has made it easier for us to test different designs for these microrobots and to test different nanoparticles to insert new functional elements into these tiny structures. It's my personal hope to further this research to eventually develop surgical microrobots that operate safer and with more precision,’ said Li.

Unfortunately, it’s not known how this research will progress from here or when we will be encountering it in hospitals ourselves. However, this is clearly another unexpected 3D printed medical application that is set to revolutionize our medical system.


Posted in 3D Printing Applications



Maybe you also like: wrote at 8/27/2015 6:23:14 PM:

I do own a 3d printer and I made today my first 3d object in plastic and I feel like a creator.

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