Nov.29, 2014

3D printed objects can be absolutely huge, providing that your print bed can handle it. Just look at this giant Marvin Mascot we reported on this week. But that doesn’t mean that everything just needs to get bigger and bigger; value and significance aren’t inherent to large sizes. Small objects and small projects can be very valuable as well, as the a new project by Spanish Andrés Gómez illustrates.

For he has achieved something truly remarkable. He has taken a absolutely minute microscopic image of some hydrogel, and gave it a tangible shape using 3D printing technology. While a complicated project, the scientific and educational potential is obvious; what science classroom wouldn’t benefit from perfect replicas of microscopic samples, that can be touched and experienced?

Andrés Gómez works at the Instituto de Ciencia de Materiales de Barecelona (ICMAB), perhaps better known under its English name: the Institute of Material Science of Barcelona. This research institute studies all manner of materials on every scale imaginable, though Andrés himself is particularly involved in projects improving scientific education in his country. Earlier this year, he headed a project called New Materials in Your Classroom that aimed at familiarizing high school students with concepts of science and encouraging them to enrol in scientific studies.

20 x 20 um Image of a HidroGel, sample courtesy of Romén Rodríguez. The image was adquired in Dynamic Mode with a AppNano Fort tip using a Agilent 5100 AFM. The image was obteined by Maite Simón

And it’s obvious how this 3D printed image fits into that same field. His unique 3D printed creation replicates an original 20 x 20 um image of a HidroGel sample that has been optaimed using Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) techniques. This technology is capable of studying at an insanely detailed level, far more than any regular microscope is capable of reaching. The image therefore had to be made using a AppNano Fort tip on a Agilent 5100 AFM device.

While it’s not inconceivable that someone 3D prints a copy of a skin cell, or something else that can be captured with a regular microscope, it’s truly remarkable that Andrés was able to print even something of such a minute scale. Perhaps even more so is that Andrés has shared a tutorial allowing everyone to try it for themselves. It’s a perfect method to bring microscopic sciences to life, so be sure to check it out.

To do so, Andrés heavily relied on Mountain Maps software, that will allow you to transform images into STL files. Though obviously, any similar piece of software will also do; ‘You can use any other SPM software, as long as you can export the surface in STL.’

After selecting the surface you’re looking to print, simply save it as an STL file and transfer that to the very popular Blender software. As Andrés’s image was just 20 microns large, nothing at all should happen as you obviously can’t see it with the naked eye. Using the software’s ‘Scale’ function will allow you to set the scale factors for the X, Y, and Z axles. Andrés used scale factors of 400 for X and Y, and 800 for Z, though you can change these to suit your own preferences.

As it can now actually be seen, it’s time extrude the surface and give the print some texture. Simply use the extrusion tool to do so. Afterwards, it’s probably best to add a solid printing base, which can be relatively simply done by adding a plain mesh to the middle of the object.

After that, it’s a matter of adding AFM image modifiers using the ‘AFM Image Object’ function. Andrés added a Boolean modifier to achieve the results below.

The process of creating a 3D printable STL file out of a microscopic image is thus relatively straightforward; the key is clearly in obtaining that image first. Now its simply a matter of going through the regular steps: exporting and slicing the file to be printed. Andrés printed his inspiring microscopic photo in orange ABS on a MendelMax 1.5, though you can obviously use any FDM 3D printer you have at home.

50 x 50 mm 3D printed AFM image of the HidroGel.

If you want to try printing a microscopic photo as a 3D object yourself, check out Andrés’s guide here. While the image chosen by Andrés might look a bit strange in 3D, his project’s approach is full of potential. If you’re truly trying to popularize science in schools, why not use 3D printing to make it all, even microscopic images, tangible? It would go a long way towards making it biology and science more existing and understandable.

Left, a 50×50 mm 3D printed AFM image, right, a 30×30 mm, a low amplified image.


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