A 3D printer for molecules: Lee Cronin at TEDGlobal 2012

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Lee Cronin is a chemist at the University of Glasgow. At TEDGlobal last year he took the stage to describe his audacious idea to create inorganic life. This year, he is presenting a short talk on another ambitious idea: a 3D printer that, instead of printing objects, prints molecules. The question he starts with is, “Could we make a really cool universal chemistry set? Could we ‘app’ chemistry?”

The idea is to make a device that could download plans for molecules and create them, in exactly the way that 3D printers can download plans and create objects. He would have a universal set of software, hardware and inks, and he believes all of them, including the ink, could be fantastically cheap. The software would be the product; the materials would be commodities.

What would this mean? It would mean that you could print your own medicine. First, his team going to look at drug discovery and manufacturing. If drugs could be manufactured easily, they could be distributed anywhere — even printed at the point of need. If a new super-bug emerges, you could print a treatment right where it breaks out.

Ultimately, Cronin says, “For me the cool bit, going into the future, is the idea of taking your own stem cells with your own genes and environment and printing your own medicine.” Quickly delivered, cheap, personalized medicine. Does that sound like enough? If not, in the long long run, “You could make a matter fabricator. Beam me up, Scotty!


Photo: James Duncan Davidson