How To Connect Neurons To Electrodes Using 3D Printing

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a new method of 3D-printing gels and other soft materials. Published in a new paper, it has the potential to create complex structures with nanometer-scale precision. Because many gels are compatible with living cells, the new method could jump-start the production of soft tiny medical devices such as drug delivery systems or flexible electrodes that can be inserted into the human body.

A standard 3D printer makes solid structures by creating sheets of material — typically plastic or rubber — and building them up layer by layer, like a lasagna, until the entire object is created.

Using a 3D printer to fabricate an object made of gel is a “bit more of a delicate cooking process,” said NIST researcher Andrei Kolmakov. In the standard method, the 3D printer chamber is filled with a soup of long-chain polymers — long groups of molecules bonded togetherdissolved in water. Then “spices” are added — special molecules that are sensitive to light. When light from the 3D printer activates those special molecules, they stitch together the chains of polymers so that they form a fluffy weblike structure. This scaffolding, still surrounded by liquid water, is the gel.

Biocompatible interface shows that hydrogels (green tubing), which can be generated by an electron or X-ray beam 3D printing process, act as artificial synapses or junctions, connecting neurons (brown) to electrodes (yellow)

Typically, modern 3D gel printers have used ultraviolet or visible laser light to initiate formation of the gel scaffolding. However, Kolmakov and his colleagues have focused their attention on a different 3D-printing technique to fabricate gels, using beams of electrons or X-rays. Because these types of radiation have a higher energy, or shorter wavelength, than ultraviolet and visible light, these beams can be more tightly focused and therefore produce gels with finer structural detail. Such detail is exactly what is needed for tissue engineering and many other medical and biological applications. Electrons and X-rays offer a second advantage: They do not require a special set of molecules to initiate the formation of gels.

But at present, the sources of this tightly focused, short-wavelength radiation — scanning electron microscopes and X-ray microscopes — can only operate in a vacuum. That’s a problem because in a vacuum the liquid in each chamber evaporates instead of forming a gel.

Kolmakov and his colleagues at NIST and at the Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste in Italy, solved the issue and demonstrated 3D gel printing in liquids by placing an ultrathin barrier — a thin sheet of silicon nitridebetween the vacuum and the liquid chamber. The thin sheet protects the liquid from evaporating (as it would ordinarily do in vacuum) but allows X-rays and electrons to penetrate into the liquid. The method enabled the team to use the 3D-printing approach to create gels with structures as small as 100 nanometers (nm) — about 1,000 times thinner than a human hair. By refining their method, the researchers expect to imprint structures on the gels as small as 50 nm, the size of a small virus.

Source: https://www.nist.gov/

How Solar Cells Absorb 20 % More Sunlight

Trapping light with an optical version of a whispering gallery, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a nanoscale coating for solar cells that enables them to absorb about 20 percent more sunlight than uncoated devices. The coating, applied with a technique that could be incorporated into manufacturing, opens a new path for developing low-cost, high-efficiency solar cells with abundant, renewable and environmentally friendly materials.

Illustration shows the nanoresonator coating, consisting of thousands of tiny glass beads, deposited on solar cells. The coating enhances both the absorption of sunlight and the amount of current produced by the solar cells

The coating consists of thousands of tiny glass beads, only about one-hundredth the width of a human hair. When sunlight hits the coating, the light waves are steered around the nanoscale bead, similar to the way sound waves travel around a curved wall such as the dome in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. At such curved structures, known as acoustic whispering galleries, a person standing near one part of the wall easily hears a faint sound originating at any other part of the wall.

Using a laser as a light source to excite individual nanoresonators in the coating, the team found that the coated solar cells absorbed, on average, 20 percent more visible light than bare cells. The measurements also revealed that the coated cells produced about 20 percent more current.

Source: https://www.nist.gov/