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Scientists 3D print ‘bionic eye’ prototype

19/09/2018By Matthew Woodley
Researchers have created a first-of-its-kind prototype ‘bionic eye’ by 3D printing an array of image sensing light receptors on a hemispherical surface.

According to the team from the University of Minnesota (UM), the discovery is a significant step towards creating a fully functioning bionic eye that could someday help restore vision to the blind and visually impaired.

“Bionic eyes are usually thought of as science fiction, but now we are closer than ever using a multi-material 3D printer,” study co-author Associate Professor Michael McAlpine said.

“Bionic eyes are usually thought of as science fiction, but now we are closer than ever using a multi-material 3D printer.”
Michael McAlpine, UM

To address the challenge of printing electronics on a curved surface, the researchers first started with a hemispherical glass dome. Using a custom-made 3D printer, they plotted the design and began with a base ink composed mostly of silver particles, which allowed it to stay in place and dry uniformly without running down the curved surface.

After the ink dried, the researchers then used semiconducting polymer materials to print photodiodes which convert light into electricity. The 3D-printed semiconductors converted light into electricity with 25% efficiency.

“We have a long way to go to routinely print active electronics reliably, but our 3D-printed semiconductors are now starting to show that they could potentially rival the efficiency of semiconducting devices fabricated in microfabrication facilities,” McAlpine said.

“Plus, we can easily print a semiconducting device on a curved surface, and they can’t.”

McAlpine currently holds the patent for 3D-printed semiconducting devices and his team has previously been recognised for integrating 3D printing, electronics, and biology on a single platform.

They earned global attention several years ago for printing a ‘bionic ear’ and have since 3D printed life-like artificial organs for surgical practice, electronic fabric that could serve as ‘bionic skin’, electronics directly onto a moving hand, and cells and scaffolds that could help people living with spinal cord injuries regain some function.

The next step is to create a prototype with more light receptors that are more efficient, while they will also investigate methods for printing on a soft hemispherical material that can be implanted into a real eye.

The study was published in Advanced Materials.

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