3D Printing Lab Instruments One Block At a Time

3D Printing Lab Instruments One Block At a Time

A team of researchers and students at the University of California, Riverside has created a Lego-like system of blocks that enables users to custom make chemical and biological research instruments quickly, easily and affordably. The system of 3D-printed blocks can be used in university labs, schools, hospitals, and anywhere there is a need to create scientific tools.

The blocks, which are called Multifluidic Evolutionary Components (MECs) because of their flexibility and adaptability, are described today (July 20) in the journal PLOS ONE. Each block in the system performs a basic task found in a lab instrument, like pumping fluids, making measurements or interfacing with a user. Since the blocks are designed to work together, users can build apparatus—like bioreactors for making alternative fuels or acid-base titration tools for high school chemistry classes—rapidly and efficiently.  The blocks are especially well suited for resource-limited settings, where a library of blocks could be used to create a variety of different research and diagnostic tools.

Am image showing how the MEC system can be used to build instruments.

The project is led by Douglas Hill, a graduate student working withWilliam Grover, assistant professor of bioengineering in UCR’s Bourns College of Engineering. Before joining UCR’s Ph.D. program in Bioengineering, Hill worked for 20 years in the field of electronics design, where he used electronic components that were designed to work with each other. He was surprised to see there was no similar set of components in the life sciences.

“When Doug came to UC Riverside, he was a little shocked to find out that bioengineers build new instruments from scratch,” Grover said.  “He’s used to putting together a few resistors and capacitors and making a new circuit in just a few minutes. But building new tools for life science research can take months or even years.  Doug set out to change that.”

Armed with a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Instrument Development for Biological Research program, Hill and Grover began to develop their building blocks. They enlisted help from UC Riverside undergraduates, who have designed new blocks and built instruments using them. Thus far, more than 50 students from across the UCR campus have participated, creating an extensive system of over 200 MEC blocks and a system of schematics that guide assembly of the MEC building blocks into finished instruments.

Grover said in addition to its functionality and affordability, the MEC system offers students a unique learning experience as they work together to create instruments one piece at a time.

“This is a truly interdisciplinary project—we’ve had computer science students write the code that runs the blocks, bioengineering students culture cells using instruments built from the blocks, and even art students design the graphical interface for the software that controls the blocks,” he said.

“Once the students have created these instruments, they also understand how they work, they can ‘hack’ them to make them better, and they can take them apart to create something else.”

A photo of the MEC research team.

Grover and Hill are now planning to pilot the MEC system in two California school districts, where it will support recently introduced ‘Next Generation Science Standards,’ a multi-state initiative to strengthen science education in K-12 schools.

“The Next Generation Science Standards require that science teachers provide their students with engineering experiences, but sometimes that’s hard for teachers to do, especially in biology and chemistry classes where they might not have the tools they need.  By using our blocks, the students can receive an engineering experience by designing, building, and refining their instruments, and also a science experience as they use their instruments to learn about biology and chemistry,” Grover said.

Hill said the team’s long-term goal is to make the MEC blocks available and affordable for others to use.

“As 3D printers become more mainstream, we’ll see them being used by schools and non-profits working in underserved communities, so ultimately we would like people to be able to use those printers to create their own MEC blocks and build the research and educational tools they need,” he said.


Lab Discovers Titanium-Gold Alloy that is Four Times Harder than Most Steels

Lab Discovers Titanium-Gold Alloy that is Four Times Harder than Most Steels

Titanium is the leading material for artificial knee and hip joints because it’s strong, wear-resistant and nontoxic, but an unexpected discovery by Rice University physicists shows that the gold standard for artificial joints can be improved with the addition of some actual gold.

Crystal structure of beta titanium-3 gold

“It is about 3-4 times harder than most steels,” said Emilia Morosan, the lead scientist on a new study in Science Advances that describes the properties of a 3-to-1 mixture of titanium and gold with a specific atomic structure that imparts hardness. “It’s four times harder than pure titanium, which is what’s currently being used in most dental implants and replacement joints.”

Morosan, a physicist who specializes in the design and synthesis of compounds with exotic electronic and magnetic properties, said the new study is “a first for me in a number of ways. This compound is not difficult to make, and it’s not a new material.”

In fact, the atomic structure of the material — its atoms are tightly packed in a “cubic” crystalline structure that’s often associated with hardness — was previously known. It’s not even clear that Morosan and former graduate student Eteri Svanidze, the study’s lead co-author, were the first to make a pure sample of the ultrahard “beta” form of the compound. But due to a couple of lucky breaks, they and their co-authors are the first to document the material’s remarkable properties.

Emilia Morosan and Eteri Svanidze

“This began from my core research,” said Morosan, professor of physics and astronomy, of chemistry and of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice. “We published a study not long ago on titanium-gold, a 1-to-1 ratio compound that was a magnetic material made from nonmagnetic elements. One of the things that we do when we make a new compound is try to grind it into powder for X-ray purposes. This helps with identifying the composition, the purity, the crystal structure and other structural properties.

“When we tried to grind up titanium-gold, we couldn’t,” she recalled. “I even bought a diamond (coated) mortar and pestle, and we still couldn’t grind it up.”

Morosan and Svanidze decided to do follow-up tests to determine exactly how hard the compound was, and while they were at it, they also decided to measure the hardness of the other compositions of titanium and gold that they had used as comparisons in the original study.

Eteri Svanidze and Emilia Morosan

One of the extra compounds was a mixture of three parts titanium and one part gold that had been prepared at high temperature.

What the team didn’t know at the time was that making titanium-3-gold at relatively high temperature produces an almost pure crystalline form of the beta version of the alloy — the crystal structure that’s four times harder than titanium. At lower temperatures, the atoms tend to arrange in another cubic structure — the alpha form of titanium-3-gold. The alpha structure is about as hard as regular titanium. It appears that labs that had previously measured the hardness of titanium-3-gold had measured samples that largely consisted of the alpha arrangement of atoms.

The team measured the hardness of the beta form of the crystal in conjunction with colleagues at Texas A&M University’s Turbomachinery Laboratory and at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University, Morosan and Svanidze also performed other comparisons with titanium. For biomedical implants, for example, two key measures are biocompatibility and wear resistance. Because titanium and gold by themselves are among the most biocompatible metals and are often used in medical implants, the team believed titanium-3-gold would be comparable. In fact, tests by colleagues at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston determined that the new alloy was even more biocompatible than pure titanium. The story proved much the same for wear resistance: Titanium-3-gold also outperformed pure titanium.

Morosan said she has no plans to become a materials scientist or dramatically alter her lab’s focus, but she said her group is planning to conduct follow-up tests to further investigate the crystal structure of beta titanium-3-gold and to see if chemical dopants might improve its hardness even further.