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If you check out the latest news in research & development, you’ll learn a lot about a new technology that’s about to revolutionize our lives completely. I’m talking about 3D printers. Now there has been a lot of fuss around them lately, but unfortunately, the media has been too busy talking about printing guns and toys rather than revealing the really interesting and useful potential of these machines.
Ever since they’ve been created, scientists all over the world have expressed interest in the surprising capabilities of this brand new technology. So far, they’ve tried to print pretty much everything you could imagine: from food to dinosaur bones and even human cells. Obviously, there have been many failures, but these experiments have also brought a few major breakthroughs that may significantly improve our lives in as little as a decade (or even less!).
Now, I’m not saying 3D printers may hold the key to eternal youth or that it will someday make everyone filthy rich… although I’m sure many will try to reach these goals. I’m talking about other achievements that might just solve some of the world’s biggest issues. And let me give you three incredible examples to show you what I mean.
#1: Eradicating hunger with 3D printed food
The first 3D printed pizza is in the making as you’re reading this. NASA has decided to fund research into 3D printed food and is willing to spend $125,000 to help scientists print the first pizza. The reason for doing this is not eradicating world hunger, but to feed their own astronauts more easily. One of these 3D printers would ensure food for an entire mission, as the ingredients come in the form of powder and have a shelf life of 30 years.
Imagine what this could mean for the third world, if the 3D food-printer were to become mainstream one day (which I’m sure it will). And it’s not just the third world that will benefit from this amazing technology. Think about U.S.’s problem with crops. almost 80% of them are already gone and farmers are trying hard to revive them, without any success so far. And you can feel that yourself on your pocket, when you go to the supermarket.
I know it may not be the ideal way to feed your family, but printed food is clearly better than no food at all. So if the food crisis sets in for good in our country, this technology could save millions of families from poverty and starvation.
But 3D printers don’t limit their miracle-making to eradicating hunger, they can also help doctors save lives when traditional medicine cannot:
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#2: Printing innovative medical solutions to save lives
Just a few days ago, doctors at the University of Michigan (UM) have created an airway splint with a 3-D laser print, which ultimately saved a baby boy’s life. According to RTAmerica, Kaiba Gionfriddo, a 19-month-old boy who was 3 months old when he had the operation done, was suffering from a birth defect that caused his airway to collapse nearly every day. During each incident, the baby would stop breathing, his face would turn blue, and his heart would occasionally stop. Doctors believed it was only a matter of time before the collapse of his airway would be fatal.
And they were right. When one of the seizures nearly killed the baby boy, doctors decided to take ANY measure that could save his life. So they turned to 3D printing. They began to build an artificial airway splint and, in just one day, they printed 100 tiny tubes with a computer-controlled laser device. They carefully fused the tubes together and, the next day, they implanted the plastic airway in Kaiba’s body. The results were incredible:
“It was amazing. As soon as the splint was put in, the lungs started going up and down for the first time and we knew he was going to be OK” (Dr. Glenn Green, pediatric specialist at UM, via RTAmerica)
And this is just one of the medical wonders 3D printers can perform. I saved the best for last, as this one has the potential of curing practically any disease and even create new, healthy organs from scratch.
#3: Producing synthetic tissue with just water and oil
A team of researchers from the University of Oxford has recently created a 3D printer that can produce synthetic tissue using just water and oil. How did they do that?
You see, cells are essentially microscopical balls of liquid held together by a membrane. It’s a basic definition of a cell, but it helped researchers develop a system that creates similar balls of fluid wrapped in a double layer of lipids (imitating the membrane). So they developed a system which creates tiny spheres of fluid and wraps them up in a double layer of lipids.
Ed Yong, an award-winning British science writer, explains how the system works for National Geographic’s readers:
The team’s printer has two nozzles that exude incredibly small droplets, each one just 65 picoliters-65 billionths of a milliliter-in volume. The nozzles “print” the drops into oil at the rate of one per second, laying them down with extreme precision. As each drop settles, it picks up a layer of lipids from the surrounding oil, and the layers of neighboring drops unite to create a double-layered membrane, just like in our cells.
According to the University of Oxford, these printed ‘droplet networks’ could be the building blocks of a new kind of technology for delivering drugs to places where they are needed and potentially one day replacing or interfacing with damaged human tissues. Because droplet networks are entirely synthetic, have no genome and do not replicate, they avoid some of the problems associated with other approaches to creating artificial tissues – such as those that use stem cells.
Basically, this technological breakthrough could help us eradicate diseases we can’t cure now and even help us grow limbs we’ve lost or organs that need replacement. I am astonished at the progress science has made in the past few years, never in my life would I have thought that I’d see the day when guns, toys, food and even human cells could be created and replicated through a printer.
Now, I know the close future doesn’t look very well, with disasters and crises striking all over the world… but at least this gives us hope. Hope that, soon enough, even the worst problems can be fixed with the push of a button. Literally.
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