Researchers 3D print ice

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon’s College of Engineering have developed a new process to 3D print tiny micro-scale ice structures that can be used as sacrificial templates and support structures for advanced manufacturing and biomedical engineering such as artificial tissues for heart and lung transplants.

These complex structures, including this 1.5mm tall octopus figurine, demonstrate the range of geometries that ice can be moulded to.

The advantage of using ice, or more specifically water, is that it’s an environmentally-friendly – and biocompatible – structural material. It can be used to produce very small, smooth, internal channels in specific complex geometries. Traditional support materials are difficult to remove but ice literally melts away. Consequently, this has enormous potential to revolutionise tissue engineering and other fields that require miniature structures with complex channels such as micro-fluidics and soft-robotics, which are designed to physically interact with humans safely.

The process was developed by Akash Garg, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering, and Saigopalakrishna Yerneni, a postdoctoral associate in chemical engineering, working under the direction of Burak Ozdoganlar, Philip LeDuc, and Phil Campbell, professors in mechanical and biomedical engineering. 

Akash Garg explained: “Using our 3D ice process, we can fabricate micro-scale ice templates with smooth walls and branched structures with smooth transitions, which can be subsequently used to fabricate micro-scale parts with well-defined internal voids.”

The team uses the printed ice structures as sacrificial templates for “reverse moulding” or inside-out 3D printing. The ice structures are submerged into the liquid or gel form of a chilled structural material, such as resin. After the material sets or is cured, the ice can be melted to evacuate the water. Alternatively, the ice can be sublimated by converting it into water vapour without turning it into liquid water. This ability to easily sublimate the ice allows for easy and gentle removal after casting and solidifying the surrounding structural material. 

The ice structures are formed by using a high-resolution 3D printing system to deposit water droplets onto a -35ºC custom-built temperature-controlled platform that rapidly transforms the water into ice. By modulating the ejection frequency of the water droplets and synchronizing it with movements of the stage, the new process enables printing branched geometries with smooth surfaces and continuous variations in diameter with smooth transitions. 

Moreover, the rapid phase change of the water and the strength of the ice enabled freeform 3D printing of ice structures without requiring time-consuming layer-by-layer printing or support structures. 

This process could be developed further for engineering applications such as creating pneumatic channels for soft robotics in as little as a year. However, it is likely to take longer to develop it for clinical use for tissue engineering. Still, it’s an interesting concept that should lead to real world applications. You can find more details from Carnegie Mellon, and the complete research paper here

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