Two Professors Lead New 3-D Printing Technology

A 3-D printing technology bearing the stamp of two renowned UNC chemistry researchers enables objects to rise from a liquid media continuously rather than being built layer by layer as they have been for the past 25 years, representing a fundamentally new approach to 3-D printing.

The technology, to appear as the cover article in the March 20 print issue of Science, enables ready-to-use products to be made 25 to 100 times faster than other methods. It also creates previously unachievable geometries that open opportunities for innovation in health care, medicine and other major industries, including automotive and aviation.

Joseph DeSimone, professor of chemistry at both UNC and N.C. State

Joseph DeSimone
Joseph DeSimone

University, is CEO of Carbon3D, a Silicon Valley startup where he co-invented the method with colleagues Alex Ermoshkin, chief technology officer at Carbon 3D, and Edward T. Samulski, also a professor of chemistry at UNC. Currently on sabbatical from the University, DeSimone has focused on bringing the technology to market while also creating opportunities for graduate students to use the technique for research in materials science and drug delivery at UNC and NCSU.

Edward T. Samulski

The technology, called CLIP — Continuous Liquid Interface Production — manipulates light and oxygen to fuse objects in liquid media, creating the first 3-D printing process that uses tunable photochemistry instead of the layer-by-layer approach, which has defined the technology for decades. It works by projecting beams of light through an oxygen-permeable window into a liquid resin. Working in tandem, light and oxygen control the solidification of the resin, creating commercially viable objects that can have feature sizes below 20 microns, or less than one-quarter of the thickness of a piece of paper.

“By rethinking the whole approach to 3-D printing, and the chemistry and physics behind the process, we have developed a new technology that can create parts radically faster than traditional technologies by essentially ‘growing’ them in a pool of liquid,” said DeSimone, who revealed the technology Monday in the opening session of a conference in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Through a sponsored research agreement between UNC and Carbon 3D, the team is pursuing advances to the technology as well as new materials that are compatible with it. CLIP enables a wide range of material to be used to make 3-D parts with novel properties, including elastomers, silicones, nylon-like materials, ceramics and biodegradable materials. The technique itself provides a blueprint for synthesizing novel materials that can further research in materials science.

Rima Janusziewicz and Ashley R. Johnson, graduate students in DeSimone’s academic lab, are co-authors of the paper and are working on applications in drug delivery and other areas.

“In addition to using new materials, CLIP can allow us to make stronger objects with unique geometries that other techniques cannot achieve, such as cardiac stents personally tailored to meet the needs of a specific patient,” DeSimone said. “Since CLIP facilitates 3-D polymeric object fabrication in a matter of minutes instead of hours or days, it would not be impossible within coming years to enable personalized coronary stents, dental implants or prosthetics to be 3-D printed on-demand in a medical setting.”

CLIP’s debut coincides with the United Nations’ designation of 2015 as the International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies, which recognizes important anniversaries of scientific advances enabled with light.

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