Scientists have found a way to extrude soft 3D printed matter that can take any shape while supporting its own weight and structure.
3D printing with anything softer than plastics presents some serious challenges. According to a recent Washington post news story, a team of scientists from the University of Florida have managed to do the impossible. They’ve discovered that the properties of granular gels — the same material used in hand sanitizers — can enable rapid solidifying of jelly-like matter.
According to a paper published in Science Advances, the team were trying to find a way to deal with the problems of low surface tension and structure deterioration that occurs when printing soft materials. The gel offers the unique combination of being liquid when it is extruded in space (under pressure), and then behaving as a solid when no pressure is applied to it.
If materials such as silicon polymers or even human cells are injected into the gel, it becomes possible to create an object that is freed from the limitations of structural supports. The team demonstrated the possibilities of this new 3D printing method by creating very delicate objects such as soft artificial jellyfish.
The applications of this new printing method, though, are not limited to conceptual creations. Neurosurgeons are already exploring complex 3D printed structures that resemble real medical cases before performing the actual surgery. This opens up the unique opportunity to practice exactly on a particular case which was never before possible.
The team is currently building a medical fabrication area in the University of Florida, to help in the field of cancer research. Using the soft matter printing method (granular gel + human cancer cells), they can print large arrays of microscopic tumors that will widen the testing possibilities for scientists, and hopefully speed up the search for an effective cure.
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