BERKELEY (KPIX 5) — Researchers at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Livermore Lab have created a new kind of 3D printer that could potentially manufacture living human organs.
Normal 3D printers work by building up thin layers of melted plastic to create solid objects, but it’s hard to get intricate designs to hold their form.
So, design engineers at Cal and Lawrence Livermore Lab got the idea of making 3D objects the same way a CT scan creates 3D images: by hitting a patient with X-rays from many different directions.
“So we thought, let’s reverse that process to create objects rather than imaging them, except we do it with light instead of with X-rays,” said Dr. Hayden Taylor, Lead Investigator of the UC Berkeley team.
The process is called volumetric printing. Rotating images of an object are beamed through a conventional video projector. The light is focused on a slowly rotating cylinder of gooey resin containing plastic molecules with a light sensitive-activator.
As light accumulates in desired areas, the gel begins to harden and, in about 30 seconds, a solid 3D object is created–not in layers, but all at once.
“In this, when you see something emerging out of nowhere, it’s really magical…it is fun to watch,” said UC Berkeley team member Hossein Heidari.
Right now, the objects are rudimentary, but the technique opens up a world of possibilities. It can create objects inside of other objects or, as shown in one experiment, a handle around a metal screwdriver.
One more advantage of the process is that only the desired material hardens; the remaining resin is still usable, meaning almost zero waste is left over. But researchers are even imagining ways to use volumetric printing to arrange human cells into living organs, such as livers or kidneys.
“I think it might happen in the next decade that we may actually see a functional organ ready to be implanted or transplanted,” Heidari said.
The labs hold the patent and are already discussing licensing the technology to the manufacturing industry as a new way to mass-produce high-quality plastic products in the future.
“But I think what’s really important about it in terms of transitioning to a commercial product is that the hardware associated with it is very inexpensive,” said Dr. Chris Spadaccini from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Now that the concept has been proven, the next challenge will be to increase the size, complexity and quality of objects being manufactured. That should open the door to all kinds of commercial uses.
The scientists say it will be a long journey before common objects are manufactured this way. But when they are, it will be because the first steps were taken in labs in the Bay Area.