What Is Flow Chemistry?
While the definition is simple, the process of studying and working with continuous flow chemistry is anything but. The term merely refers to the review, study or process of creating chemical reactions within an enclosed pipe or tube.
Typically, flow chemistry reactors work like this — two chemicals or reactive components are added to a custom-crafted pipeline. After being added, they flow toward what’s called a mixing junction, and then they pass into a monitored output tube. Generally, the output tube is temperature-controlled and lined with one or many different sensors to measure the reaction occurring inside.
Why conduct studies or operations this way? The answer to that question is also relatively simple. Flow chemistry equipment provides many benefits, including faster, more contained reactions, safer experiences, super easy clean-up and custom scaling. Regarding scaling, the pipe system can be built to match the size of the reaction, and changes tend to be cheap, fast and easy to make.
What Do Flow Chemistry Applications Have to Do With 3D Printing?
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, can be used to create almost anything. At one time, the technology was limited to specific materials, namely plastic. 3D printing equipment was also limited concerning scale. That is no longer the case.
The technology has been optimized to a point where it can be used with nearly any material, from plastic and metal to wood. Moreover, manufacturers now use 3D printers to produce incredibly large objects or structures — even whole buildings in some cases.
These improvements also mean that the necessary flow chemistry equipment can be printed using numerous materials or designs at an incredibly low cost, without losing quality or accuracy. Study teams and researchers can print custom designs in minutes or hours.
Perhaps the most promising element is that researchers can use 3D printing blueprints via digital form to optimize and improve flow chemistry setups. It’s not just a pipe dream — pun intended — it’s being done as we speak. A team of U.K. scientists at Vernalis Research has already developed a new flow chemistry device that enhances flow rates in related systems.
How 3D Printing Is Shaping the Future of Flow Chemistry
Taking a page from the Vernalis Research team’s book, there are many ways in which 3D printing can update and improve flow chemistry operations. Some of the more practical methods are as follows:
1. Smarter Designs
The entire purpose of flow chemistry hinges on the proper management, measurement and understanding of the reactions happening within the system. While conventional flow chemistry equipment might include a few sensors and such, 3D printing can take this setup to a whole new level, especially when paired with IoT devices and machine learning or AI controls.
By naturally integrating smart sensors into the flow system, readings become more accurate, relevant and instant. The real-time nature presents even more opportunity. Reactions, or the release of certain chemicals, can be adjusted on the fly. Imagine, for example, adding a little more of a reactant to see what happens in the output tube.
Taking that one step further, real-time measurements and data can help researchers fine-tune their processes. Recognizing when a reaction or mixture is too much, for instance, can be the difference between a messy or dangerous situation and a successful one.
2. Safer Designs
Depending on the chemicals being used, the flow chemistry equipment may need to change or adapt. Certain caustic chemicals, for example, are perfectly contained within plastic materials, while others require something more specific. The beauty of 3D printers is that they can print various materials — from metal to plastic and beyond. Glass might be highly corrosion resistant, but it offers poor heat transfer. Printing with a more applicable type of material, like hastelloy-C metal flow tubes, is a solid alternative.
When researchers know what kind of tubing or housing they need, they can adjust the 3D printer to work with a safe material. Copper or brass might be preferred over plastic, for example.
In traditional situations, it might take weeks or even months to receive piping and equipment built to the necessary specifications. However, with 3D printing, it may only take hours.
3. Collaborative Designs
When working on a research project, most teams stay isolated, keeping results and processes close to the chest. Even with a highly skilled team, everyone can end up working in an echo chamber or bubble. 3D printing, on the other hand, is very much a community effort. The same can be true of scientific and commercial-based projects.
The researchers involved don’t have to share mission-critical information, but they can certainly share and collaborate with a greater community regarding the 3D-printed designs. Imagine teams uploading, downloading and working on tube designs via group efforts, pushing research forward as a whole.
Flow chemistry involves sussing out faster and sometimes larger reactions. A community of chemists working together to build a perfect system is more likely to return results than a single person or team who’s isolated for the entirety of their project.
A Flow Chemistry Review: Tubes In Print
For most continuous flow chemistry projects, the idea is to create an enclosed system that allows reactions to continue playing out over an extended period. This explains the name “continuous flow,” which denotes a near-endless cycle. Even with the most skilled and intelligent researchers on a team, optimizing a system using traditional means is challenging, if not downright impossible. It can also take a long time, especially when designs are being exchanged between a team of researchers and manufacturers.
3D printing removes the middleman and makes it possible to manufacture or develop custom systems entirely in-house. They can be built to scale with literally any number of materials and design specifications. The result is safer, smarter and more collaborative opportunities for the research community.