Back in 1932, Winston Churchill wrote that in 50 years, “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately.” While it may be a few decades late, we are on the brink of a world where your computer and a special three-dimensional printer can ‘print’ virtually anything that you can imagine.
It may sound like science fiction but 3D printers currently exist. Like your printer, they have injectors that move left to right and up and down. These printers develop such things as plastics, foods and human cells. Over the next five years, 3D printers are expected to become a $3 billion a year market.
Think of the uses. A remote village in a developing country will be able to fix machinery by printing a replica of the broken piece. In these same places, glass frames break yet the lenses remain useful. Now frames will be made to custom fit the lenses with the push of a button.
When it comes to the human body, the Open3DP team at the University of Washington have printed artificial bones. Numerous tissue engineers have printed such things as intestines and tracheas yet progress on larger organs has been slow. Anthony Atala of Wake Forest University has printed a non-functional kidney. Jonathan Butcher of Cornell University has printed a working heart valve out of biological polymers. “Anytime a tissue is anatomically complex, 3D printing will make a major impact,” says Butcher. Butcher made the heart valve out of plastics which he then put it in a bioreactor where stem cells were added. The stem cells integrated with and eventually replaced the plastic creating a human heart valve made entirely of human cells. Butcher states that this technology will revolutionize human organ transplants as it costs $10 to make the human sized heart valve with the 3D printer.
Lee Cronin of the University of Glasgow is working on printing drugs. To date, he has been able to print ibuprofen. He believes that in the near future, chemical ‘inks’ will be used to print low demand drugs that pharmaceutical companies know how to make but do not market due to costs. This will revolutionist the distribution of drugs with particular significance in remote towns and villages.
On the food front, Dr. Vladimir Mironov is within months of the first organic, test-tube created hamburger for human consumption. While the initial cost is estimated to be about $200,000 a pound, this technology is developing so quickly that costs are expected to fall quickly. Most surprisingly, “it’s organic technology,” says Mironov.
Creating animal protein in the lab and then ‘printing’ it will have massive positive impacts on the environment. This approach could nearly eliminate all greenhouse gasses associated with animal husbandry and reduce the energy needed to create these animal proteins by 45% while requiring only 1% of the land and 4% of the water associated with current production methods.
It is believed that these printers will gain their first commercial success in the creation of simple things such as chocolates and cookies. Jeff Lipton of Cornell University says, “This would be a slam dunk for cookies at holiday time” given the precision that the 3D printer can create which is difficult and time consuming for people.
Like The Jetsons, we are not that far from a world where a natural, organic meal can be created with the touch of a button and these 3D food printers are as common as the microwave. More importantly, this could be the key to global food sustainability.