Illinois University engineers have built a 3D printer that offers water-soluble, biodegradable glassy sugar structures.
According to the researchers, these sugar scaffolds could have multiple applications ranging from device manufacturing to biomedical engineering.
The newly formed structures are part of materials and mechanics dealing with free-form isomalt printing.
Free-form means that as the nozzle moves through space, the melted material hardens, leaving a sturdy structure behind – like drawing in midair.
Other types of sugar printing have been previously explored, but have problems with the sugar burning or crystallizing, said Matthew Gelber, the first author of the paper.
The Illinois team found that the sugar alcohol isomalt could work for printing applications and is less prone to burning or crystallization.
They then built a printer that would have the right combination of mechanical details to print stable isomalt structures – the right temperature, pressure to extrude it from the nozzle, diameter of the nozzle, and speed to move it so it prints smoothly but then hardens into a stable structure.
The Illinois researchers partnered with Greg Hurst at Wolfram Research in Champaign to create an algorithm to design scaffolds and map out printing pathways.
One advantage such free-form structures hold is their ability to make thin tubes with circular cross-sections, something not possible with conventional polymer 3D printing.
When the sugar dissolves, it leaves a series of connected cylindrical tubes and tunnels that can be used like blood vessels to transport nutrients in tissue or to create channels in microfluidic devices.
Another advantage is the ability to precisely control the mechanical properties of each part of the structure by making slight changes in the printer parameters.
Image credits, video and content: Travis Ross, Beckman Institute/University of Illinois