Make your own rat-cell robot with a 3D printer!

Written on:November 15, 2012
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The uses for a 3D printer are truly astounding. Take for example researchers at the University of Illinois, who have made a “walking” robot comprised of a smattering of hydrogel and a few cardiac rat cells. Researchers built the robot using a 3D printer, creating a cyborg inchworm whose forward motion occurs with every beat of the rat’s heart cells.

The goal here was to create bio-compatible designs that mimic and take advantage of nature to build machines and solve problems. While the bio-bot is only 7 mm long — about a quarter-inch — it could be used in drug testing or other chemical detection jobs. Integrated sensors that react to certain chemicals could be installed on the bio-bot and cause it to veer away from specific chemical compounds, indicating their presence. It could be a 7mm-self-propelled canary in the coal mine.

From a release on the topic:

“The idea is that, by being able to design with biological structures, we can harness the power of cells and nature to address challenges facing society,” said Bashir, an Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering. “As engineers, we’ve always built things with hard materials, materials that are very predictable. Yet there are a lot of applications where nature solves a problem in such an elegant way. Can we replicate some of that if we can understand how to put things together with cells?”

The bio-bot moves because it’s asymmetrical, with one long, thin leg resting on a shorter, wider support leg. The thin leg is covered in the rat heart cells and when those heart cells beat, the long, thin leg pulses and moves the bio-bot forward. Yes, this sounds utterly creepy, but it’s undeniably cool to watch this thing spasm its way across the surface in the video:

As an aside, this is the second awesome research project I’ve read about being built by academics using a 3D printer. On Wednesday MIT detailed how students used a 3D printer to make a new type of radio antenna out of new meta-materials, which it compared to the planet-destroying Death Star from the Star Wars movie. The new antenna might be useful for deep-space imaging or perhaps microscopy at the nano level, but all I could think of was MIT students are using their 3D printers to recreate stuff from Star Wars movies.

Now I can add the folks at the University of Illinois to the list of institutions where researchers are taking 3D printers and building stuff out of science fiction novels.


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