Tuesday, January 31, 2012

First step at Star Trek's Replicator

I would be the first to admit that having a replicator like that on Star Trek would be awesome. Can you just imagine? You wouldn't have to cook or bake (yes, there's freezer already made meals and delivery, but that still takes time). All you'd have to do is press on the button for what you want and voila, instant meal delivered straight to you. Granted, right now, it'd probably taste like cardboard but still.

One of the coolest things in development right now (there are some already out there and have been for the last decade), is 3D printing. So you'd take a 3D image on the computer and send it to this device and it'd 'print' it in 3D before your eyes like magic. The ones that are available right now apparently cost over $15,000, mostly used by companies (automotive, aerospace, footwear, jewelery), that need to develop a 3D version of their product out of plastics and other material.

It's even foreseen that in the future, 3D printing will reproduce replacement organs. Currently, tissues such as skin, muscles and short stretches of blood vessels can be made. Even bones have been printed. With more research, however, it should be possible to create bigger and more complex body parts. These printers work by depositing droplets of polymer which fuse together to form a structure. Voids in the structure and complex shapes are supported by printing a scaffold of water-soluble material and then once the product is complete, the scaffold is washed away. Researchers found that when small clusters of cells are placed next to each other, they fuse together and organize themselves. Various techniques are also being explored to condition the cells to mature into functioning body parts (for example, exercising muscles using small machines).

Though printing organs is new, growing them from scratch on scaffolds has already been done in 2006 in which new bladders were created for some patients and are still working. Some researchers think machines like this may one day be capable of printing tissues and organs directly into the body.

This, as far as I'm concerned, is the tip of the iceberg. If they can already accomplish some of these things, anything can be done in the future with one of these printers. As an author, I see the musecrack there, but also, the marketing potential. What would you do with one?

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