Researchers print “living” polymers

A new form of 3D printing, a where the object can transform under certain conditions, has been use to create “living” plastics or polymers.

The research, conducted by scientists from UNSW and the University of Auckland, could enable the creation of a new class of materials. The materials respond to light or water and can be activated for growth, noted lead author Cyrille Boyer.

“In contrast to conventional 3D printing, our new method of using visible light allows us to control the architecture of the polymers and tune the mechanical properties of the materials prepared by our process.”

Currently, the research team are looking into applying the technology to the creation of drugs and biomaterials, in what’s known as 4D printing, as Nathaniel Corrigan, co-first author highlighted.

“For example, the 3D object starts as a flat plane and when exposed to certain conditions, it will start to fold – that’s a 4D material. So, the fourth dimension is time,” he said.

If utilised in the manufacture of plastic products, the new material would be able to be easily repaired or re-used, said Boyer.

“For example, if you want to put the UNSW logo on a mug, you can modify the surface of the object and grow the polymers to show UNSW because the object is not dead; it’s a living object and can continue to grow and expand.”

The technology also opens up potential new methods of creating biomaterials, without needing the material to be heated to the temperatures that 3D printing currently requires, said Corrigan.

“Current 3D printing approaches are typically limited by the harsh conditions required, such as strong UV light and toxic chemicals, which limits their use in making biomaterials. Using heat above 40 degrees kills cells, but for visible light polymerisation we can use room temperature, so the viability of the cells is much higher.”

The researchers also see the potential for the technology’s use in the manufacturing of microelectronics.