It seems as if everything in science these days is having the prefix ‘nano’ applied to it. Partly this is because the nano is an aspect of the world to which humans have had so little previous access that every discovery or further definition of understanding on that level brings with it a more in-depth introduction to the previously unseeable world. The most recent nano-news comes from the University of Michigan, where researchers have been able to create rounded, facet-less crystals termed ‘nanolobes.’
If you ever did the crystal growing experiment when you were a kid, or if you happen to be a crystal engineer, you know that one of the aspects of crystals that makes them so interesting is their angular geometry. They surprise us because so much of what we are trained to think is natural or organic is curved and sinuous. Now it is possible to engineer crystals without those angles and facets, something which, not surprisingly, nature has been able to do for a great deal longer. Associate Professor of Materials Science, Max Shtein, characterized the novelty of this new possibility:
“In my years of working with these kinds of materials, I’ve never seen shapes that looked like these. They’re reminiscent of what you get from biological processes. Nature can sometimes produce crystals that are smooth, but engineers haven’t been able to do it reliably.”
One of the places that rounded crystals might be found is the rudimentary eyes of Echinoderm sea creatures and in the shells of starfish. Does that mean that the major application of this discovery lies in the creation of replacement eyes for Echinoderms? Probably not. Instead, scientists suggest that further exploration of these structures may lead to advances in LED lighting, solar cells, and the creation of non-reflective surfaces. It’s even possible that some type of self-cleaning or dirt-repellant material might be generated based on this structure.
Interestingly enough, one of the possibilities for the newly discovered nanolobes is presented by the very process used to create them: organic vapor jet printing. Since this process is the way in which they are created, they lend themselves to being manipulated through 3D printing technology. This means they have the potential to be 3D printed as medicine that would more readily absorb into the body and make personalized dosing more practical.
These interesting structures were actually first created in 2010 by accident. A doctoral student using the organic vapor jet printer to make solar cells was examining a fresh layer of material after recalibrating one of the machines and noticed that there was a repeating nanolobe pattern. At first glance, this appeared to be a machine malfunction but repeating the process led to the same results. However, the importance of those results wasn’t fully recognized until a second doctoral student became fascinated by the forms and began to collaborate with a professor in the physics department.
The organic vapor jet printing is a process that Shtein himself developed when he was in graduate school. It works somewhat like spray painting, but instead of a liquid it dispenses gas. Shtein believes there is great promise for this technology, and the newly understood creation of nanolobes, to contribute to the production of 3D printed medications. Let’s hear your thoughts on this research in the 3D Printed Pill forum thread on 3DPB.com.