For the past year, the big story in 3D printing has been researchers trying to create living materials through the 3D printing of cells. Companies like Organovo are on the cusp of creating working organs with 3D printers, and other researchers are already dabbling with 3D printed meat. While all of that is very exciting, researchers are now looking to 3D printers for the creation of non-living biomaterials.
TechCrunch reports that two Stanford University researchers - Lynn Rothschild and Diana Gentry - are attempting to 3D print wood. To be more specific, they are wanting to help NASA grow trees in space. Wood isn't the only thing in their sights either as the two believe their research may yield the ability to print other non-living organic matter, like bone and tooth enamel.
Here's how Rothschild described it to TechCrunch:
“Cells produce an enormous array of products on the Earth, everything from wool to silk to rubber to cellulose, you name it, not to mention meat and plant products and the things that we eat. Many of these things are excreted (from cells). So you’re not going to take a cow or a sheep or a probably not a silk worm or a tree to Mars. But you might want to have a very fine veneer of either silk or wood. So instead of taking the whole organism and trying to make something, why couldn’t you do this all in a very precise way – which actually may be a better way to do it on Earth as well – so that you’re printing an array of cells that then can secrete or produce these products?”
This isn't the first time NASA has dabbled in 3D printing. The space agency is already using the technology to produce food and rocket parts. This is probably the most advanced use of 3D printing seen at the space agency though and it probably won't be ready for quite a while, unlike the aforementioned food and rocket printers that are already producing tangible results.
Still, it's another major step forward for a technology that has been, until a few years ago, used exclusively for manufacturing and prototyping. With 3D printers, researchers now have an inexpensive way to manipulate cell structures. Just as some want to spare cows by 3D printing meat, we may one day spare trees by 3D printing wood.
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