Imagine a scenario wherein a doctor could directly implant a tiny electrode, thinner than a strand of human hair, into a patient’s brain in order to help cure him of epilepsy. Sounds far-fetched? Well, this may well be the future with the advent of microscopic printing.
Recently, The Guinness Book of World Records highlighted a record for the world’s smallest magazine cover—a tiny National Geographic Kids cover, featuring two panda bears. In order to create this March 2014 edition, a heated silicone tip carved the image, which was so small that over 2000 of these covers could fit on a single grain of salt.
The above two examples highlight the advances science and technology are making in the field of microscopic printing. Further, the advanced printing technology that made this possible has a wide range of potential applications from energy-efficient transistors in cellphones, nano-sized security tags to even artificial human cells. Most importantly, it holds the answer to a hurdle many scientists face, that of rapid prototyping. In the medical world, this could help create heart stents, micro-sized needles, and aid in the possibilities of cell and tissue regeneration.
The technology behind most 3-D micro-printers is called two-photon polymerization. It involves focusing tiny, ultra-short pulses from a near-infrared laser on a light-sensitive material. The material polymerizes and solidifies at the focused spots. As the laser beam moves in three dimensions, it creates a 3-D object.
Though the field of medicine is most likely to benefit from microscopic printing, other industries can also make use of the technology. In fact, some security firms are planning to employ this methodology to create microscopic security tags to protect documents, currency, passports, and works of art from forgery.
Further studies have also taken microscopic printing to a higher level. Researchers at Harvard University have been able to replicate the skin of a shark in order to understand how it gains speed to travel through water. A complex project, the first step required the scanning of a sample shark’s skin. This used micro-computerized tomography imaging and a 3D model of the constructed denticles, which were then fed to a highly sophisticated 3D printer. In due course, the team managed to create a section of biomimetic shark skin, containing tens of thousands of individual denticles. This was then attached to a robotic arm in a water tank, allowing the section of skin to oscillate as it would on a swimming shark. In this manner, the researchers could observe the movement of the denticles as they would be on a real shark. All of this was only possible because of 3D microscopic printing.
How do you think microscopic printing can benefit society as a whole? Please leave your comments in the section below.
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