3D printers as universal chemistry sets for nanotechnology

(Credit: Lee Cronin via KurzweilAI.net)

We’ve speculated here about whether 3D printers could lead toward nanofactories and noted recent progress in fast printing of arbitrarily complex three dimensional objects with 100-nanometer resolution. For the most part, 3D printers have been used to print solid objects made from plastic. Now chemist Leroy Cronin at Glasgow University is working on making 3D printers print molecules—becoming a universal chemistry set. A hat tip to KurzweilAI.net for pointing to this article by Tim Adams in The Observer. From “The ‘chemputer’ that could print out any drug“:

Professor Lee Cronin is a likably impatient presence, a one-man catalyst. “I just want to get stuff done fast,” he says. And: “I am a control freak in rehab.” Cronin, 39, is the leader of a world-class team of 45 researchers at Glasgow University, primarily making complex molecules. But that is not the extent of his ambition. A couple of years ago, at a TED conference, he described one goal as the creation of “inorganic life”, and went on to detail his efforts to generate “evolutionary algorithms” in inert matter. He still hopes to “create life” in the next year or two.

At the same time, one branch of that thinking has itself evolved into a new project: the notion of creating downloadable chemistry, with the ultimate aim of allowing people to “print” their own pharmaceuticals at home. Cronin’s latest TED talk asked the question: “Could we make a really cool universal chemistry set? Can we ‘app’ chemistry?” “Basically,” he tells me, in his office at the university, with half a grin, “what Apple did for music, I’d like to do for the discovery and distribution of prescription drugs.” …

The article describes how he used a £1,200 3D printer to print precisely specified reaction chambers connected by tubes of various lengths and diameters. Small molecules combine in the custom-designed reaction chambers to make more complex molecules. Printing specific catalysts into the walls of the reaction chambers provides further control. The system was published earlier this year in Nature Chemistry. From the abstract:

… Here, using a low-cost 3D printer and open-source design software we produced reactionware for organic and inorganic synthesis, which included printed-in catalysts and other architectures with printed-in components for electrochemical and spectroscopic analysis. This enabled reactions to be monitored in situ so that different reactionware architectures could be screened for their efficacy for a given process, with a digital feedback mechanism for device optimization. Furthermore, solely by modifying reactionware architecture, reaction outcomes can be altered. Taken together, this approach constitutes a relatively cheap, automated and reconfigurable chemical discovery platform that makes techniques from chemical engineering accessible to typical synthetic laboratories. …

The emphasis of The Observer article is on 3D printing of complex organic molecules to make a 3D printer for drugs. Such an automated discovery system for complex organic molecules might be useful in developing atomically precise manufacturing. But perhaps an even more fruitful path toward molecular manufacturing might result from combining this approach with Prof. Cronin’s major research effort in “Polyoxometalates: Building Blocks for Functional Nanoscale Systems“. These are versatile inorganic molecular building blocks that can form a wide variety of complex molecular architectures and that have useful catalytic, electronic, and magnetic properties. As Eric Drexler has noted, these characteristsics recommend them for consideration in developing productive nanosystems.
—James Lewis, PhD

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