The 3 degrees of 3D printing

19 March 2013 - Tech

In a recent Nature Chemistry Michelle Francl is making a case for the good old molecular models. Increasingly in disuse with the steady progress of computer technology, Franck argues that they remain a powerful conceptual tool and we are reminded that Crick in his discovery of DNA relied heavily on physical models.

The article also mentions 3D printing of molecular models. That would present the best of both worlds and this blog's interest is generated. The internet uncovers several ventures into this area. The Scripps institute has a spin-off called the Scripps Physical Model Service dedicated to physical models. This institute also has experience in adding augmented reality for example by projecting a electron-density map on the physical model. It deals mostly with big biomolecules. The manufacturer of the 3D-printer also has a dedicated modeling page. Models are available on loan from the Center for BioMolecular Modeling. Models of simple molecules like caffeine or fullerene can apparently be purchased at shapeways. For the artistically inclined, 3D molecules can also be etched by laser in glass at commercial outlet

3D printing has also moved into nanotech. For reports in the popular press on nanoscale 3D printing not of molecules but nanostructures see here and here and here.

On an even smaller scale there is of course Leroy Cronin the man who in a recent TED promised he will eventually be able to actually print drug molecules on demand. (youtube here). If he is experimenting with SEM technology, building molecules atom by atom, he is either very patient or he owns a lot of SEM machines. Otherwise the promise is nonsensical. The TED talk was only three minutes but Cronin is not doing himself a favour by making these dubious claims. Only by browsing through his papers you can get clue what he really means: 3D printing of continuous microreactors that supplied with the right chemicals can make the drugs. Interesting concept but apparently too complex to fit into these 3 TED minutes. In the meanwhile the damage is done: hundreds of online publications are more than happy to inform you that drugs can be 3D printed.