Apr. 29, 2015 | By Alec

While our desktop 3D printers are sadly limited to plastic filament, manufacturing experts believe that the 3D printer’s potential is largely found in other materials with more applications and properties. Things like resins and metals quickly come to mind, but graphene is in many ways the holy grail of 3D manufacturing. It’s therefore very exciting to hear that a team of London-based engineers have successfully experimented with graphene 3D printing. And now researchers from Northwestern University have developed a solution-based 3D printable graphene ink. As they explain in a new research paper, it can be used to make objects multiple centimeters in length, making it a perfect filament for various technological and medical applications.

To explain, graphene is essentially a form of carbon, just like diamonds or the lead in pencils. But unlike most forms of carbon, graphene is a 2D material that consists of a hexagonal sheet only a single atom thick. This means it can be made into shapes of literally any size, but its properties are especially interesting. Not only is it very light, flexible, and extremely durable (about a hundred times stronger than steel), it is also a very efficient conductor of heat and electricity and is compatible with human cell tissue.

You don’t need to be a dreamer to quickly think of various interesting applications, so its hardly surprising that this substance (which has only theoretically existed until 2004) has been very interesting to manufacturers. As it essentially revolves around single atom particles, its theoretically very suitable for 3D printing, and a few months ago a British team managed to do exactly that.

But now this endeavor from Northwestern University has – using a different approach to the ‘filament’ – managed to 3D print (via extrusion) arbitrarily shaped, electrically conductive, mechanically resilient and biocompatible scaffolds in a various shapes and sizes. So far their tests have shown that graphene scaffolding is very flexible can be made ranging in diameter from 100 to 1000 µm, though multiple centimeters is also possible.

Ramille Shah.

This new and exciting innovation has been developed by Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Ramille N. Shah and Assistant Professor of Surgery  Simpson Querrey, both from the Institute for BioNanotechnology at Northwestern University.

Together with an extensive team of graduate students and an envisionTEC BioPlotter 3D bioprinter, they have managed to create a 3D printable substance with a far higher graphene content than previously possible. ‘From a 3D printing perspective, graphene has been previously incorporated into 3D printed materials, but most of these constructs comprise no greater than about 20 volume % of the total solid of the composite, resulting in electrical properties that are significantly less than what we describe in our recent work,’ they tell reporters.

As they explain in an article published in the online edition of ACS Nano ("Three-Dimensional Printing of High-Content Graphene Scaffolds for Electronic and Biomedical Applications"), their ‘filament’ consists primarily of graphene (approximately 60% of it). And while graphene is stiff and brittle, their solution is very 3D printable and very flexible – perfect for the applications we are dreaming of. Key in obtaining that high level of graphene and its structural functions is a particular biocompatible elastomer binder called PLG.

Shah explains that their work was motivated by the need for more innovative biomaterials for medical applications – specifically nervous tissue regeneration – that are relatively inexpensive and easy to produce. And these graphene inks are very suitable for that function. In a nutshell, it is developed through the combination and mixing of elastomer solutions with the dispersion of graphene powder. The solution is subsequently thickened and reduced. This process can theoretically be done on any scale, ensuring sufficient medical supplies.

The development process.

As Shah continues to explain, their tests have already shown that these inks are particularly well suited for medical use, as they are surgically friendly and can be made at any size and sutured to human tissue. Especially interesting is the results of graphene structures used in stem cells intending to become nerve cells. ‘In our experiments, we have shown the ability of 3DG scaffolds to induce neurogenic differentiation of adult mesenchymal stem cells without the need for any other neurogenic growth factors or external stimuli,’ she says. ‘This is a major finding that supports the use of materials themselves for inducing specific cellular responses that can be leveraged for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine applications.’

This exciting and revolutionary new 3D printable ink could thus open the door to encouraging the regeneration of damaged or non-functional tissues such as nerves, bones, and even cardiac muscles. As they are also relatively easy (and inexpensive) to produce and use in a medical environment, graphene inks will doubtlessly take the medical industry by storm. And aside from these obvious medical applications, implantable biosensors and a large number of electrical devices can also be developed with graphene, so this is big news indeed. It looks like the next generation of 3D printing technology is already here.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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