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Scientists 3D Print Functional and Biological Materials Directly on Human Skin

3D printing electronics directly on human skin

In a path-breaking new research, scientists from University of Minnesota have found success in 3D printing functional and biological materials on a real hand for the first time. Using a customised 3D printer, the researchers printed temporary electronics on human skin capable of detecting chemical and biological agents.

The research will have a profound effect on a multitude of applications wherein temporary electronics and sensors can be easily printed for specific applications and then as easily removed once the job is done.

Above: Video demonstrating the process of 3D printing electronics/Video Credit: McAlpine group, University of Minnesota/YouTube

Lead author Michael McAlpine shared his views on the success of the study, “We are excited about the potential of this new 3D-printing technology using a portable, lightweight printer costing less than $400. 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.”

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Novel Innovations

The research has touched some very novel innovations. Below is the list of some of them.

Above: Lead Author McAlpine talks about the potential of a new technique to 3D print electronics and cells directly on the skin/Video Credit: McAlpine group, University of Minnesota/YouTube


Medical Healing

The researchers were also successful in printing biological cells on a skin wound of a mouse. Researchers believe this technique could lead to medical treatment breakthroughs for medical healing and direct printing of skin grafts.

Allowance for Movement

The research is not only novel in the sense that it can print on human skin but the researches also considered a lot of inherent flaws of printing on a human body part. One of the important innovations of the research is that the 3D printer allows for small movement of the part where the printing is taking place. This is in accordance to the fact that a person, no matter how much restrained, will make small movements. For this, temporary markers are placed on the skin surface and the skin is scanned. The printed then uses a computer vision to adjust to the movements in real-time.

McAlpine explains, “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. 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.”

Curing and Conduction at Room Temperature

Another unparalleled innovation of this research lies in the usage of special inks for printing. These inks are made of silver flakes which surprisingly can be cured at room temperature and additionally they even conduct at room temperatures. This is unlike other exiting 3D printing inks which need to be cured at high temperatures, close to 100 degrees Celsius or 212 degrees Fahrenheit. This would definitely burn the body part.

Peel off or wash it off

Lastly, the electronics printing is temporary and it can be as easily removed as simply peeling it off with tweezers or washing it off under water.

The researchers believe that the study has applications like 3D printing electronics and sensors for defence and medical applications, wound healing, direct printing of skin grafts, etc.

Lead author McAlpine says, “I’m fascinated by the idea of printing electronics or cells directly on the skin. It is such a simple idea and has unlimited potential for important applications in the future.”

The research was a collaborative effort of a long list of members and most importantly, Michael McAlpine, the lead author of the study and the University of Minnesota Benjamin Mayhugh Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, a world-renowned expert on treating rare skin disease & University of Minnesota Department of Pediatrics doctor and medical school Dean Jakub Tolar.

In addition to McAlpine and Tolar, the University of Minnesota team includes Ph.D. students Zhijie Zhu and Xiaoxiao Fan and postdoctoral researcher Shuang-Zhuang Guo from the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the College of Science and Engineering; and research staff Cindy Eide and Tessa Hirdler from the Department of Pediatrics in the Medical School.

The research paper titled, 3D Printed Functional and Biological Materials on Moving Freeform Surfaces was published in Journal of Advanced Materials on 25th April, 2018.

The study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and state-funded Regenerative Medicine Minnesota. In addition, the first author of the paper Zhijie Zhu was funded by a University of Minnesota Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellowship.

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