Innovation

The 9 weirdest 3D-printed objects with scientific uses

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From custom toys to life-saving medical devices, the range of what can be created with 3D printing is massive.

Some of what’s being 3D printed today could have huge implications for science tomorrow, even if some of it seems a little bizarre.

Here are the 9 weirdest things that can be 3D printed (and are actually useful).

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9. Mini-brain nurseries

Scientists from MIT and the Indian Institute of Technology Madras created a small, 3D-printed bioreactor, which they used to grow brain organoids.

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The bioreactors are cheap and reusable, plus they allow nutrients to be fed to the growing tissue, keeping organoid cells from dying.

Ikram Khan

8. Nasal swabs

Research led by the University of South Florida shows that 3D-printed nasal swabs work just as well as the standard swabs used to test for Covid-19. Swabs can be 3D printed for less than half the cost of commercial swabs.

© USF Health|University of South Florida

7. Medical training models

Instructors at the University of South Australia developed 3D-printed feet with realistic ulcers to teach podiatry students to spot and treat dangerous conditions like diabetic foot disease.

University of South Australia

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Printed organs have also been used to train surgeons on realistic and easily obtainable models.

6. Food

Researchers in Singapore created a new type of food-based “ink” for 3D printers that keeps nutrients intact. They say it could make pureed food more palatable for hospital patients — and it even tastes good.

SUTD / NTU / KTPH

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Food made with 3D printers could also incorporate food scraps — that would otherwise go to waste — or insects, which may be more palatable in a less recognizable form.

5. Rocket fuel

Scientists from James Cook University 3D printed solid plastic fuel grains to be used in hybrid rocket engines, which could make the fuel easier to produce.

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NASA’s own tests suggest rocket parts could also be 3D printed and used in place of traditionally manufactured parts.

NASA

4. Artificial corneas

Scientists at Newcastle University created the first 3D-printed cornea in 2018. Donated corneas are scarce and scientists are hoping to replace current synthetic corneas, which aren’t as clear as real ones.

Newcastle University

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In 2019, scientists in South Korea used stem cells to print a cornea designed to be more easily accepted after transplant and is almost as transparent as a normal cornea.

3. Guns

In 2013, the first 3D-printed gun — called the Liberator — spurred debate over whether plans for firearms should be legal.

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Critics today highlight the danger of making guns accessible without a background check. Advocates claim they have a right to distribute plans for guns and argue they’re too impractical to pose a danger.

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2. Smart fiber

Researchers from the University of Cambridge created 3D-printed fibers thinner than a human hair. These can be used to make lightweight respiratory sensors.

Devices made with these fibers could monitor the wearer’s breath for medical tests or help create more effective face masks by testing for leaks.

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1. Body parts

Researchers from Virginia Tech developed a method of integrating electronic sensors into prosthetics as they’re being printed, which could make customized prosthetics with electronic controls much more affordable.

Virginia Tech

Prosthetics have even been 3D printed for animals. In 2018, students at the University of Minnesota 3D printed a new “exoshell” for a sea turtle with an injured shell.

University of Minnesota

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