The Minnesota researchers used a customized, low-cost 3D printer to print electronics on a human hand. They’ve also successfully printed biological cells on a sin wound of a mouse. The researchers suggest that the new technique could create new medical treatments for wound healing and graft treatments.
“We are excited about the potential of this new 3D-printing technology using a portable, lightweight printer costing less than $400,” said Michael McAlpine, the study’s lead author, in a press release. “We imagine that a soldier could pull this printer out of a backpack and print a chemical sensor or other electronics they need, directly on the skin. It would be like a ‘Swiss Army knife’ of the future with everything they need all in one portable 3D printing tool.”
To print on the skin, temporary markers are placed and the skin is scanned. The 3D printer is able to adjust to the small movements of the body while it is printing using computer vision.
“No matter how hard anyone would try to stay still when using the printer on the skin, a person moves slightly and every hand is different,” McAlpine said. “This printer can track the hand using the markers and adjust in real-time to the movements and contours of the hand, so printing of the electronics keeps its circuit shape.”
The 3D printer also uses a specialized ink that contains silver flakes that are known to cure and conduct at room temperature. Traditional 3D printer inks need to cure at temperatures up to 212ºF, which would burn a hand.
The electronics can be removed easily just by peeling the device off with tweezers or washing it with water.
McAlpine is a 3D printing pioneer at the University of Minnesota and recently filed a patent for “3D printed active electronic materials and devices.” The patent encompasses using 3D printing to create active electronics from semiconducting materials. Everything is done through the printer.
This new 3D printing technique can also be used for other applications like printing skin cells directly onto the skin to help with skin diseases or even create skin grafts.
“I’m fascinated by the idea of printing electronics or cells directly on the skin,” McAlpine said. “It is such a simple idea and has unlimited potential for important applications in the future.”
The research was published in the Advanced Materials journal and was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and state-funded Regenerative Medicine Minnesota.