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The Future of Sight

University of Minnesota Researchers Develop Bionic Eye Prototype

Picture of Hanna Watkin
by Hanna Watkin
Aug 30, 2018

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have 3D printed an image sensing array on a hemisphere: in essence, a bionic eye. It is the first-of-its-kind and, hopefully, will be used to help blind people see. 

A significant step has just been made towards creating the first bionic eye. The work of a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota, the group has “fully 3D printed an array of light receptors on a hemispherical surface“. Currently, a first-of-its-kind prototype exists.

Published this week in Advanced Materials, the research could prove a life-changing development for blind or partially sighted people.

Its author also holds a patent for 3D printed semiconducting devices. Michael McAlpine, a co-author of the study and University of Minnesota Benjamin Mayhugh Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, said: “Bionic eyes are usually thought of as science fiction, but now we are closer than ever using a multi-material 3D printer.”

Bringing Science Fiction to the Everyday

In order to develop the bionic eye, the researchers needed to prove that it was possible to print electronics on a curved surface. So, their work began with printing on a hemispherical glass dome  — a challenging feat the team overcame with a custom-built 3D printer using a base ink of silver particles. This ink stayed in place and dried uniformly. Next, they used semiconducting polymer materials to print photodiodes. These convert light into electricity.

This process took the team an hour to complete. But, McAlpine explains that the most surprising aspect was that the fully 3D printed semiconductors converted light into electricity with 25% efficiency.

McAlpine explains: “We have a long way to go to routinely print active electronics reliably, but our 3D printed semiconductors are now starting to show that they could potentially rival the efficiency of semiconducting devices fabricated in microfabrication facilities… Plus, we can easily print a semiconducting device on a curved surface, and they can’t.”

This isn’t the first development by McAlpine and his team. In fact, they have previously 3D printed a bionic ear, life-like artificial organs and electronic fabric which may serve as “bionic skin”. They’re known for bringing biology, electronics, and 3D printing together. Find out more here.

For this particular project, McAlpine has a personal reason for driving his efforts. He adds: “My mother is blind in one eye, and whenever I talk about my work, she says, ‘When are you going to print me a bionic eye?”

Now the researchers are working on creating a prototype which has more light receptors which are even more efficient. As well as this, they’re aiming to find a way to print on a soft hemispherical material that can be implanted into a real eye.

Source: Science Daily

Bionic Eye

License: The text of "University of Minnesota Researchers Develop Bionic Eye Prototype" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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