Novel 3D-printable material mimics complex cartilage structures

Written by Georgi Makin

A team of scientists from University of Colorado Denver (CO, USA) has developed a 3D-printable material capable of mimicking bone and cartilage.

Scientists from University of Colorado Denver (CO, USA) have developed a novel material – liquid crystal elastomers – that can be used to 3D print complex and porous lattices, mimicking cartilage and other biological tissues.

Described in Advanced Materials, the team utilized liquid crystal elastomers – soft, elastic, multifunctional materials known for their ability to dissipate high levels of energy. Difficult to manipulate, previous work with liquid crystal elastomers has produced large objects with minimal levels of detail, but the University of Colorado Denver team was able to employ 3D printing to produce much smaller and more intricate objects.

“Everyone’s heard of liquid crystals because you stare at them in your phone display and you’ve likely heard of liquid crystal polymers because that’s exactly what Kevlar is. Our challenge was to get them into soft polymers, like elastomers, to use them as shock absorbers. That’s when you go down the layers of complexity,” explained Chris Yakacki, Mechanical Engineer Professor (University of Colorado Denver).

The team investigated the use of the 3D printing technique, digital light processing (DLP). This process required the development of a honey-like resin that cures in response to ultraviolet light, forming bonds in layers of thin photopolymers. The cured resin results in a soft, strong and ‘compliant’ elastomer that can mimic cartilage when 3D printed in lattice structures.


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The scientists proved the concept by 3D printing a lotus flower and a spinal fusion cage prototype (pictured above).

“The spine is full of challenges and it’s a hard problem to solve,” Yakacki added.

“People have tried making synthetic spinal tissue discs and they haven’t done a good job of it. With 3D printing – and the high resolution we’ve gotten from it – you can match a person’s anatomy exactly. One day, we may be able to grow cells to fix the spine, but for now, we can take a step forward with the next generation of materials. That’s where we’d like to go,” Yakacki concluded.

Sources: Traugutt NA, Mistry D, Luo C, Yu K, Ge Q, Yakacki CM. Liquidcrystalelastomerbased dissipative structures by digital light processing 3D printing. Adv. Mater. doi: 10.1002/adma.202000797 (2020) (Epub ahead of print); www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-06/uocd-cdr060320.php


Lead image: A DLP-printed LCE concept device of a spinal cage with a porous lattice architecture. University of Colorado Denver.