3D-printing has the potential to transform science and technology creating bespoke, low-cost appliances which have previously required dedicated facilities. An attractive but unexplored application is using the 3D-printer to initiate chemical reactions by printing the reagents directly into the 3D-reactionware matrix, putting reactionware design, construction and operation under digital control. Using a low-cost 3D-printer and open-source design software, we produced reactionware for organic and inorganic synthesis, including printed-in catalysts, and other architectures with printed-in components for electrochemical and spectroscopic analysis. This allowed reactions to be monitored in situ so that different reactionware architectures could be screened for their efficacy for a given process, giving a digital feed-back mechanism for device optimisation.
Initially, a reaction cascade is chosen for investigation, and labware considered appropriate for this task is designed with the aid of suitable computer programs. This same suite of programs can then be used to execute the actual printing of the device(s) and to initiate the reactions, whilst other software monitors the reactions as they happen. The results at all stages along the way can be fed-back to allow optimisation of the printed labware for a particular outcome in subsequent device “generations”. As user input to this process is potentially minimal after the initial reaction cascade has been selected and the first iteration of devices designed, subsequent optimisation (or “evolution”) of the system towards a specific goal becomes a digitally-automated process. Taken together, this approach constitutes a cheap, automated and reconfigurable chemical discovery platform that makes techniques from chemical engineering accessible to typical synthetic laboratories.
Our Initial work in 3D printing has recently been published in Nature Chemistry (DOI:10.1038/NCHEM.1313 accompanied by a "News & Views" article.
This work has also been highlighted in RSC magazine Chemistry World and ACS publication Chemical and Engineering News.