3D Printing of Nanoporous Polymers

3D printing offers great flexibility in the creation of precisely engineered objects with highly complex geometries. This is rapidly opening up possibilities in many fields, including aerospace, robotics, construction and medicine.

Recently, we saw an interesting article on 3D printing of nanoporous polymers from the laboratory of Prof. Pavel Levkin, who heads a research group at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany.

We spoke with Dr. Zheqin Dong, a postdoctoral researcher working in Dr. Levkin’s group and lead author on the article about their research and use of scanning electron microscopy and confocal microscopy.

Tell us about the research in your lab.

Dr. Pavel Levkin (left) and Dr. Zheqin Dong, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany

Prof. Pavel Levkin (left) and Dr. Zheqin Dong

We have been working in the field of surface science for years. We are fascinated by the ability of 3D printing to create precisely controlled micro/nano structures, which opens new possibilities for the fundamental research of surface properties.

Currently, the materials available for 3D printing are very limited. We design and develop novel inks that can lead to 3D-printed objects with multifunctional and intelligent properties, making them useful for a variety of applications.

What new discoveries did you present in your recent publication?

We have developed a new method to 3D print polymer objects with inherent nanoporosity.

3D Printing of polymer objects with complex macroscopic 3D geometry and defined nanoporous structure. Courtesy of Dr. Pavel Levkin, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany

3D Printing of polymer objects with complex macroscopic 3D geometry and defined nanoporous structure.

We found that such nanoporous structure significantly improves cell adhesion and biocompatibility of the 3D-printed scaffolds. The improved cell adhesion and biocompatibility are important for 3D-printed objects intended for tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. In the end application, the 3D-printed objects will be used as cell culture scaffolds, on which new tissue can be grown to replace damaged tissue.

3D-printed inherently nanoporous scaffolds with improved biocompatibility for cell culture. a) Schematic representation of the scaffolds´ geometry. b-c) 3D confocal microscopy images of cells cultured on the inherently nanoporous scaffold (b) and the non-porous scaffold (c) after 1, 2, and 4 days of culture. d Coverage of live cells (Calcein-positive) calculated from the 3D confocal images within a volume of 3 × 3 × 0.3 millimeters cubed. Courtesy of Dr. Pavel Levin, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany

3D-printed inherently nanoporous scaffolds with improved biocompatibility for cell culture. a) Schematic representation of the scaffolds´ geometry. b-c) 3D confocal microscopy images of cells cultured on the inherently nanoporous scaffold (b) and the non-porous scaffold (c) after 1, 2, and 4 days of culture. d) Coverage of live cells (Calcein-positive) calculated from the 3D confocal images within a volume of 3 × 3 × 0.3 millimeters cubed.

How did you use microscopy in your research?

I use both electron microscopy and confocal fluorescence microscopy in my research. In this study, I used electron microscopy to study these sub-micrometer structures.

3D printed porous architecture with different sub-micrometer pore size. a) Photographs showing the macroscopic geometry. b) scanning electronic images showing the internal porous structure. Image courtesy of Dr. Pavel Levkin, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany

3D printed porous architecture with different sub-micrometer pore size. a) Photographs showing the macroscopic geometry. b) scanning electron microscopy images showing the internal porous structure.

I also studied the potential of 3D-printed porous polymers as cell-culture scaffolds. Here, a confocal fluorescence microscope was used to investigate cell adhesion and proliferation on 3D-printed porous scaffolds. The Z-stack technology of the confocal microcopy is critical to visualize the cell distribution on the 3D-printed scaffolds.

Where do you see this research going next?

This research established a new method to 3D-print objects with inherent nanoporosity. In the future, we will continue to develop new functional building blocks to afford the 3D-printed nanoporous objects with novel and intelligent functionalities (e.g., responsive, adsorptive, catalytic, anti-fouling), making them valuable for many more applications ranging from water purification, carbon dioxide conversion to medical devices.

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