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3D Printers Support Science Research at U Houston

3D printers are overhauling teaching and research practices at the University of Houston (UH). A growing number of faculty members at the 40,000-student institution are using the devices to support their research. According to the university, scientists are using the printers to create designs in plastic, metal, ceramic and even biological tissue.

"If you can think of it, you can print it," said Tony Frankino, assistant professor of biology in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Houston, in a prepared statement.

Frankino used one of the lab printers to produce a set of small wind tunnels for a graduate student's research project. The Ph.D candidate used the wind tunnels to examine fruit flies and their "ability to adapt to new environments." Frankino made a smaller set of the wind tunnels for use as a visual aid at conferences and lectures.

Computer Engineering professor Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal would like to see the printers used to help individuals suffering from movement disorders. His research aims to develop algorithms that "read electrical activity in the brain and translate it into movement." The 3D printers, he said, could be used to create custom exoskeletons, with built-in motor, for children with cerebral palsy. Fitted over the user's hips and legs and controlled by the brain-machine interface, the exoskeleton could be used as a therapeutic device for treating the movement disorder.

For now, though, most academics report using the printers to as a way to illustrate complex concepts in the classroom. Ognjen Miljanic, assistant professor for the Department of Chemistry, uses the printers to produce models of crystal molecules. The molecules, too small to view with the naked eye, can be studied through the 3D models.

"I realized that models could convey some concepts much better than I could in two dimensions on the board," said Miljanic.

Miljanic was recently named a Contrell Scholar by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. He received the honor for his proposal about developing a database of plans for 3D models. The plan allows academics at any institution to print the models for their own use.

"The cost has dropped over the last 10 years," Miljanic noted. "The barrier now is that many people are uncomfortable trying to prepare a 3D model design."

Schools can save more than just money with 3D printers. Frankino estimated that the wind tunnel he printed out would have taken up to a year to design and $60,000 to produce. But with the 3D printer, the tunnels took just two weeks to create at a cost of $2,000.

"That's pretty science fiction to me," Frankino quipped. "That's amazing.

About the Author

Kanoe Namahoe is online editor for 1105 Media's Education Group. She can be reached at knamahoe@1105media.com.

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