The new development could help blind people see or allow sighted people to see better.
“Bionic eyes are usually thought of as science fiction, but now we are closer than ever using a multilateral 3D printer,” Michael McAlpine, a co-author on the study, said in a press release.
To create the bionic eye prototype, the researchers first started with a hemispherical glass dome to show they could print electronics on a curved surface. The team built a 3D printer for the project and started printing the eye with a base ink of silver particles. The ink was able to stay in one place and dried uniformly without running. This allowed the researchers to use semi-conducting polymer materials to print photodiodes to convert light into electricity.
The entire process takes about one hour and McAlpine says there was 25% efficiency in converting light into electricity using the fully 3D printed semiconductors.
“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 micro fabrication facilities,” McAlpine said. “Plus, we can easily print a semiconducting device on a curved surface, and they can’t.”
“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?'” McAlpine said.
The researchers plan to make a bionic eye prototype that has more light receptors that are more efficient. The also hope to develop a way to print the electronics on a soft hemispherical material that can be implanted in the human eye.
The research was published in the journal Advanced Materials and was funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the National Institutes of Health, The Boeing Company and the Minnesota Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy Initiative.