3D Printing with Ultrasound
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research and the University of Heidelberg have developed a new technology to print matter in 3D. They use sound waves to generate pressure fields. Within these sound fields, for example, solid particles or biological cells can be assembled into selected shapes. The findings pave the way for novel 3D cell culture techniques with high relevance for biomedical engineering.
3D printing makes it possible to create complex parts from different materials – even biological ones. Traditional 3D printing can be a slow process, building objects layer by layer. Researchers from Heidelberg and Tübingen are now showing how a 3D object can be formed from smaller building blocks in just one step. “Using targeted and shaped ultrasound, we were able to assemble the smallest particles into a three-dimensional object in a single step,” says Kai Melde, a postdoc in the group and first author of the study. “This can be very useful for so-called bioprinting. The cells used there are particularly sensitive to environmental influences and ultrasound is a gentle method,” adds Peer Fischer, Professor at Heidelberg University.
Sound waves exert forces on matter – a fact that every concert-goer who feels the pressure waves from a loudspeaker knows. With high-frequency ultrasound, which is inaudible to the human ear, the wavelengths can be shifted below one millimeter into the microscopic range. This allows researchers to manipulate very small building blocks such as biological cells.
In previous studies, Peer Fischer and his colleagues demonstrated how ultrasound can be generated using acoustic holograms – 3D-printed plates designed to encode a specific sound field. They demonstrated that these sound fields can be used to assemble materials into two-dimensional patterns.
With their new study, the team was able to take the idea one step further. In the sound fields, they capture particles and cells floating freely in the water and combine them into three-dimensional shapes. In addition, the new method works with a variety of materials, including glass or hydrogel beads and biological cells. First author Kai Melde explains: “The key idea was to use several acoustic holograms together and thus form a sound field that can capture the particles.” Heiner Kremer, who wrote the algorithm for optimizing the hologram fields, adds: “Digitization of an entire 3D object in ultrasonic hologram fields is very computationally intensive and required new calculation routines.”
The researchers assume that their technology for the formation of cell cultures and tissues in 3D is a major advance. Ultrasound has the advantage that it is gentle on cells and can penetrate deep into the tissue. In this way, the new method can be used to manipulate cells remotely without damaging them.
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