3D Printing

While NASA prints food supplies for astronauts using 3-D technology, Virginia Tech professors have set their sights higher back on earth.

“Printing a slice of pizza sounds fun,” said Timothy Long, director of the Macromolecules and Interfaces Institute. “But the real future may be in printing the entire pizzeria building.”

Long, teamed with Dr. Chris Williams of the mechanical engineering department, is in the process of creating large-scale changes. But as the MII develops new materials and stretches the boundaries of 3-D production, the results aren’t so futuristic.

The MII currently supports the existing science and engineering program at Virginia Tech. Its main focus is on polymeric materials, the fuel that creates the products. The two professors have combined their varying schools of thought to print materials for the first time, including copper and “active materials” that react to various conditions.

“We’re doing more than what you see on 'The Big Bang Theory,'” Long said. “These programmed molecules will be the next generation of objects.”

The two said many undergraduate researchers contributed to their accomplishments. When the partnership began, the duo had minimal research funding. However, with the aid of around 15 students each semester, Long and Williams have built a program that attracts funding from some of the top companies in the world.

“We’re moving at a frantic, exciting pace,” Williams said. “Every company that visits our department is also interested in 3-D printing.”

Now, with external funding, the team can afford experimenting with higher risk. Williams brings in new printers and dismantles them with the team, voiding the warranties in an attempt to improve the machines. He said he would like to expand the size of the stock materials currently available with printers.

“We can do this because Virginia Tech is uniquely at the intersection of science and engineering,” Williams said.

Schools across the country have made 3-D technology more accessible to faculties and student bodies alike. Not all printers belong to engineering students, either: dozens of printers can be found in architecture and visual arts buildings around campus.

Along with increased accessibility, Long is hopeful for the future.

“My crystal ball shows huge advancements in health care in the next 25 years,” Long said. “We’re looking at prosthetic devices, hearing aids and molds to construct arteries and veins.”

The team presented its recent findings to the scientific community this week on Reddit. After hosting a webinar to a global audience Thursday evening, Long and Williams went back to their offices and debated the status of their latest robotic arm project. 

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