Scientists Are 3D-printing With Voxels Now

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Scientists Are 3D-printing With Voxels Now
June 21, 2018
C Bader et al (2018) Science Advances 4 (5) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aas8652
3D printed image of bundles of nerve fibers (axons) in the brain

 

In many areas of research, scientists need to analyze three dimensional data in a variety of forms, such as medical brain scans, the structures of cells and molecules, geological features on our own planet and others, or the hearts of exploding stars.

 

The ability to visually analyze most 3D data still mainly relies on the use of two-dimensional (2D computer displays. This presents a limitation because although we have been physically representing information in two dimensions )since the first cave paintings and probably earlier, our brains have evolved for stereoscopic vision: we’re hardwired for 3D.

 

Moreover, when 3D images are represented in 2D, even when you can spin them one way and another on a computer screen, it can sometimes be difficult to see or appreciate the detailed 3 dimensional relationships between objects, be it the way two atoms interact or two binary stars.

 

If, for example, you are designing a drug to fit cozily into a tiny gap in an enzyme, or if you are trying to trace the connections between neurons in a complex network of brain circuitry, then the more you understand the 3D environment the better.

 

The good news is that remarkable progress is enabling better use of virtual reality and augmented reality in analyzing scientific data, and now researchers have an even more tangible (and for some a less dizzying) way to see their data through the use of 3D printing.

 

Previously, 3D printing couldn’t handle fine details of certain data sets, such as the fine tracks of white matter in brain scans, but now researchers led by Professor Neri Oxman at MIT’s Mediated Matter group have developed a new method that overcomes this challenge.

C Bader et al (2018) Science Advances 4 (5) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aas8652
3D printed brain with colored resin voxels

 

Instead of using pixels, this approach converts data into ‘voxels’, or volumetric pixels. The 3D printer deposits droplets of special resin that is cured and hardened by ultraviolent light. Billions of these resin voxels are deposited in incredibly thin layers (each as thin as 12 microns) to produce high resolution 3D objects. Moreover, the process enables use of colored and transparent resin, which allows full color models that include transparency where needed.

C Bader et al (2018) Science Advances 4 (5) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aas8652
Printed data from a computer simulation of chaotic mixing of white and green fluids
C Bader et al (2018) Science Advances 4 (5) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aas8652
Printed data from a CT scan of an arthritis patient's hand

 

can be seen in these images and this video from the journal Science below, the results are stunning and incredibly useful, with potential applications in medicine, planetary science, archaeology, education and more.

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