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Changing the Equations for Carbon, Biomedicine

Reporting from the El Paso innovation conference, our Michael Haederle explains how a toy frog may have hopped over some biomedical manufacturing obstacles.

The puzzles and promise of life in a carbon-constrained world continue with a presentation given by Charles Cook, principal associate director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. His theme is "Game Changers," the kinds of over-the-horizon technologies that could transform the whole carbon/climate change equation.

Cook sees five major approaches that could have a big impact — if they can be realized.

The first is carbon capture and sequestration (discussed extensively this morning), which Cook sees as "doable," although "costs are a major impediment."

A second approach is heavy duty electrical energy storage. "Developing electrochemical capacitors that can store major amounts of power is the grand challenge," he says. The Department of Energy is considering creating a research hub in this area, Cook says.

Check out all of the reports from the "Building Partnerships and Pathways to Address Engineering Grand Challenges" conference El Paso, Texas:
Grand Assemblage Addresses Grand Challenges
Tell Me Where It Hurts, Mr. Highway
Pictures From a Poster Session

Transforming plant cellulose to fuel is another promising technology, Cook says, as is artificial photosynthesis — the search for new chemistry that would enable the generation of energy from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide. "The DOE has recognized this as a major research concentration," Cook says.

The final potential game-changer is technology to recycle spent nuclear fuel. In addition to productively exploiting a waste product, there are "huge amounts of energy there," Cook says, "And there's no CO2 associated with it."

Later, Cook tells me that most projections for dealing with the carbon crisis over the next few decades assume incremental developments in existing technologies. Yet just in the past few years, Cook says, proven domestic natural gas reserves have jumped by 30 percent, a development that could make a big impact in reducing carbon emissions (burning natural gas creates a lot less CO2 than burning other fuels).

Natural gas may even become a component of the passenger automobile fleet (currently it is used in compressed form in buses and similar vehicles), alongside electric, hybrid gas-electric and other systems, he says.

"There is no single bullet," Cook says. "We need them all."

This afternoon's technical session, "Engineering and Manufacturing Tools for Biomedical Discovery and Innovation," features Scott Crump, CEO, president and chairman of Stratasys Inc.; Semahat S. Demir, director of the biomedical engineering program for the National Science Foundation; Ryan Wicker, director of the W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation for modeling at UTEP and Richard A. Wysk, a professor of engineering at North Carolina State University.

In a brief videoconference presentation, Demir, who was also prevented from attending by bad weather on the East Coast, walked the audience through the procedures for winning NSF funding for biomechanical engineering.

Next, Wicker opens up a discussion with "Medical Frontiers in Additive Manufacturing," a deceptively boring name for some seriously gee-whiz technology. While we were napping, it seems engineers figured out how to make complex and very precise 3-D replicas of everything from microscopic structures to body parts and replicas of airplane propellers by using computers to add layer after painstaking layer of material.

As he shows an animation of how a plastic model of a spinal column can be assembled, he noted that, "[a]ll of these technologies use some kind of support material or scaffolding that is simultaneously created during this process."

The "additive manufacturing" label encompasses three very different processes:

Stereolithography — Uses a cross-linkable photo-reactive polymer that goes on as a liquid, but turns into a solid when it's hit with a laser beam. This process uses its own material as its support, meaning that excess material has to be removed at the end.

Fused deposition modeling — Thermoplastic is extruded through a heated nozzle, which turns it molten as it is deposited in thin layers. This process uses a water-soluble support material, which is dissolved away after the casting is done, Wicker says.

Electron beam melting — A process "transforming a powdered metal using an electron beam," is how Wicker describes it. It creates a fully dense metal structure.

Wicker, whose W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation is the largest university lab focused on additive manufacturing in the world, says they decided to focus on biomechanical applications early on.

One result has been creating 3-D models of a patient's body as a pre-surgical planning tool. "You can manufacture somebody's anatomy prior to surgery," Wicker says. "There's great use for that."

Wicker's team has also used the technology to build models of the human vascular system, both in rigid form (for hemodynamic studies) and more pliant models. And, they have produced medical-grade materials used in implants.

The lab, with 27 additive manufacturing machines on premises, has also built 3-D electronic devices using "direct print" technology and modeled objects as small as 2 microns in diameter (about one-fiftieth the width of a human hair), Wicker says.

In an exhibit room down the hall, some of Wicker's students manned a table covered with examples of their work. There are solid gear-driven objects with moving parts. Particularly haunting is the replica of a child's skull with a large invasive tumor growing through it. It was created using data from high-resolution CT scans so that the surgeon could better visualize the operation.

The conference is treated to Scott Crump's entertaining account of how he built Stratasys (motto: "Making It Real") out of an idea he had in 1988 when he was building a toy for his 2-year-old daughter.

While trying to craft a "toy froggy" in the kitchen with a glue gun, he realized you could build up the material with layered beads of plastic. Then it occurred to him that you could harness that technology to a 2-D pen plotter to create a 3-D object.

Obsessed, Crump soon took his project to the garage, and then, over the course of 20 years, to full-blown R&D, IPO and through countless other acronyms in the business development lexicon.

He realized he had created a kind of 3-D printer for engineers at a time when they were just starting to develop computer-aided design. Now, with the press of a button, an engineer could create a 3-D model of a design without having to enlist a model maker or tool-and-die specialist.

What started as a hobby has grown into a thriving business selling 2,000 units a year, Crump says. "We have a plan for 5,000 per year," he adds. "My vision is over 10,000 per year."

These days, Stratasys is making Hewlett-Packard-branded 3-D printers and seeing its devices used for manufacturing tools and end-use parts, as well as functional prototypes and concept models.

Richard Wysk has a far-ranging curiosity that has drawn him into biology and medicine, as he has looked for ways to make man-made parts like replacement knees and hips more compatible with the human body.

To keep transplants from causing infections, engineers often use bio-inert substances like titanium, cobalt chrome, high-density polymers or stainless steel to craft their devices. But these impermeable materials don't act like bone - and the body knows it.

"Engineers need to create bio-mimetic devices and materials," Wysk says. "We need to figure out what Mother Nature has done and utilize the appropriate materials."

On Wednesday's agenda, expect an address by Victor Mendez, administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, and a technical session on "Assessment and Management of Decaying Urban Infrastructure."

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