Printing Molecules

Lee Cronin professor of chemistry in Glasgow UniversityThis past summer at TEDGlobal 2012, Lee Cronin of the University of Glasgow divulged his lab’s latest work: the creation of a 3D printer for the creation of synthetic molecules. These 3D printers are impressive by any standard, but using one for this purpose is simply mind-boggling. The core of this prototype’s abilities is in the use of several fluidic ‘reationware’ devices whose sole purpose is for chemical synthesis. These devices are assembled in conjunction with reactant ‘silo’s that allow for the introduction of the reactants into the system during synthesis.

What’s even more amazing is that the architectural programming can be altered to potentially fabricate any molecule. In fact, Cronin has already been able to synthesize organic, inorganic, and materials processes such as gold nanoparticle synthesis and alkylation reactions. These reactions and others can be modified easily to yield virtually any outcome. Cronin associates this programming with the ‘Apps’ of the Apple Store. Each molecule can be made into a separate program and upon selection can be synthesized in his printer.

Cronin’s goal for this printer is to explore the potential of printing medicine. This would make such medicines cheaper and far more widely available. If this indeed comes to fruition, the possibilities are endless. Death rates in third world countries caused by treatable disease could sharply decline and our overall quality of life as a whole could drastically improve.

But what else is possible in the future through the evolution of this technology? If we can synthesize any molecule, can we create much more complex items such as food which can solve the hunger crisis or can this even be evolved to be available for medicinal manufacturing within the individual’s own home? Granted, this could cause the downfall of pharmaceutical companies and could also lead to illegal drug manufacturing and use, but with such strides in chemistry and medicine, how can we not explore all the possibilities?


Written by Erica Nader.


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