Surprising Ways a Chemistry Department can Use 3D Printing

   By David Ramsey on March 10, 2020

As we have seen in this blog series, additive manufacturing is becoming commonplace in many disciplines not typically thought of such as architecture and fine arts. Other disciplines, such as science, have benefited from using 3D printing to advance research and understanding by turning difficult concepts into tangible models. In this article of our series, we look at a few examples of this and specifically how 3D printing has been beneficial in Hunter College’s chemistry department.

Traditional Modeling Versus 3D Printing

2D molecular structures

The unique ability to produce a physical example quickly and efficiently gives 3D printing an undeniable edge when it comes to understanding how chemical bonds are formed and how that layout defines the physical structure of many materials. Whether it is with pen and paper or electronic software packages, students in chemistry departments have been able to model various 2D molecular structures for quite some time. 2D models work well for examining the structure of single molecules but are not ideal for showing depth. This can be improved by using 3D modeling software, like SOLIDWORKS, where students are able to rotate and observe the model in a 3D virtual space. But this can also have its limitations depending on software availability and proficiency.

There are few substitutes for a real hands-on learning experience. Being able to 3D print the structure gives students the ability to see how these structures would interact with one another as they form the bonds that create the different materials we use daily. This ultimately leads to a deeper understanding of the properties these materials will have, like strength or flexibility.

3D printing moleculesThanks to advancements in specific software packages, like Chimera, that same molecule modeled in 2D can now be converted and saved as a 3D model suitable for 3D printing. Students are printing atom and bond models of these molecules showing them a more accurate physical representation of the final structure and examining how the bonds are made and held. The traditional “ball and stick” construction method has been around for a while. However, assembling these models is often time-consuming and less accurate, and the materials used in these models deteriorate over time. 3D printed models can be assembled and broken down time and time again. More importantly, they can be printed with the appropriate bond angles available, leading to higher precision models as a result.

Case Study: Hunter College

Hunter College CampusWith chemistry departments working hand in hand with 3D printing, advancements are being made on both sides. As noted above, chemistry departments see the benefit with readily made 3D models. 3D printing is also reaping rewards here as well. Advanced chemistry students are taking the lead in the development of new printable polymer filaments, resins, powders and even organic materials that are optimized for 3D printing. This research is invaluable when it comes to creating materials with specific physical properties.

3D printed heart valve

A good example of chemistry students using these newly developed materials comes from Hunter College. Undergrads taking Chem 291 are designing and conducting studies in fields such as biochemistry and neuroscience. In this class, they are assigned a science project in which they need to find an answer to a specific research question. Through 3D printing, they get to develop objects that will help them answer that question. Recently, these Chem 291 students used organic silica to develop a 3D printed heart valve. The goal of this work is to create a valve that is resistant to calcification and clotting, which is a major contributor to heart attacks and strokes.

>> Download our guide that explains how healthcare is advancing with 3D printing

In the same program, students are researching better ways of producing the cathodes used in lithium batteries. They are tasked with creating a lithium battery that can provide an increase in power and efficiency, with the goal of protecting the environment by migrating from traditional fossil fuels. They are designing the cathodes with increased porosity. This enables the cathode to have more surface area while simultaneously decreasing its overall volume. This increase in surface area means more room for energy-producing ions in the cathode.

“Our novel, integrative approach requires Hunter students to tackle this era’s serious scientific questions. It also prepares them to join the vanguard of 21st-century scholars investigating and developing new areas of cutting-edge research,” said Hunter College’s Chemistry Professor, Mandë Holford.

The ability for chemistry departments and 3D printing to work together is revolutionizing what is possible and ultimately changing the lives of many. 3D printing can help students find answers to their research questions by allowing them to 3D print models that will let them evaluate their hypotheses quickly.

Universities are incorporating 3D printers into their curriculum in fun and innovative ways. Learn how they are engaging their students and developing new products that will let them evaluate their hypotheses in a matter of hours.

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David Ramsey

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