Apr 14, 2017 | By Tess

A team of researchers from the University of Helsinki in Finland have created a 3D printed microreactor device that has helped them to study chemical reactions more efficiently and to improve their research process. The project is yet another example of how 3D printing can be used to overcome specific challenges in an innovative way.

Dr. Gianmario Scotti, a scientist at the University of Helsinki, was drawn to 3D printing after he became tired of having to travel 15 km from his research lab to a cleanroom to execute certain chemical experiments. In partnership with a fellow researcher, Markus Haapala, Scotti thought that 3D printing could offer a way to circumvent the cleanroom phase altogether, through the creation of compact, disposable containers that could house the chemical reactions.

Scotti’s research uses microchips which have to be processed through mass spectrometry, an analytical technique which ionizes chemicals and sorts the ions based on their mass-to-charge ratios. Prior to the 3D printed device, the researcher team had to travel to the cleanroom to test batches of microchips using mass spectrometry, which meant that it was more effective to produce large batches of microchips to test at once. As Scotti explains, this method ate up precious time, as the research team had to wait for microchip batches to be manufactured before testing them.

By developing 3D printed disposable microreactors, Scotti and Haapala thought they could bypass the cleanroom and simply connect the 3D printed container to a mass spectrometer to study the chemical reactions of the microchips. Scotti, who had experience with 3D printing metals (stainless steel, specifically), thought that using plastic would offer a more economical solution, especially as the containers were to be disposable.

Ultimately, the researchers settled on using polypropylene, a strong and durable material which would not adversely affect the chemical reactions being tested. The research team ordered their polypropylene filament from a supplier in Germany and quickly got to developing and testing various microreactor designs. After a few different prototypes, the researchers had developed a 3D printable microreactor which could be used for mass spectrometry analysis.

The next step was using the 3D printed containers for a mass spectrometer analysis. For this, researcher Sofia Nilsson got involved. “By hooking up a microreactor to a mass spectrometer, reactions can be followed in real time with high sensitivity and selectivity,” she explained. “Thanks to this, it's possible to detect intermediates and even transition states of reactions, making the stipulation of a reaction mechanism possible, which is what my research is focused on.”

The 3D printed microreactor, to explain in more detail, consists of a small plastic container with a stir bar (used for mixing chemical samples) and a thin needle (for spraying and ionizing the chemical sample for MS analysis). To properly incorporate the stir bar and the nanoelectrospray needle as seamlessly as possible, the researchers had to pause the 3D printing process to install them before resuming the print.

How does the 3D printed microreactor work exactly? Well, the magnetic stir stick is activated by simply placing a computer fan under the microreactor, while the whole container is supported by a 3D printed jig that also has sample syringes attached to it. Ultimately, the 3D printed device has allowed the University of Helsinki researchers to more efficiently test their microchips using mass spectrometry.

The project was recently published in the journal Reaction Chemistry & Engineering under the title “A miniaturised 3D printed polypropylene reactor for online reaction analysis by mass spectrometry.”

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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