University of Minnesota, McAlpine Group

A team of researchers at the University of Minnesota have, for the first time, fully 3D printed an array of light receptors on a hemispherical surface. This discovery marks a significant step toward creating a “bionic eye” that could someday help blind people see or sighted people see better.

The scientists were able to print a set of light receptors on a hemispherical material using 3D printing technology. According to Michael McAlpine, co-author of the study, Benjamin Mayhugh, University of Minnesota Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, using a multi-material 3D printer for bionic eyes is “not rocket science” as earlier thought, and could soon become the everyday reality within just a few years, adding that “Bionic eyes are usually thought of as science fiction, but now we are closer than ever using a multi-material 3D printer.

The study has been published in Advanced Materials, a peer-reviewed scientific journal covering materials science on August 28th. The author also owns the patent for 3D-printed semiconducting devices.

McAlpine said the most astonishing part of the process was the 25% efficiency in transforming the light into electricity they attained with the fully 3D-printed semiconductors.

We have a long way to go to routinely print active electronics reliably, but our 3D-printed semiconductors are now starting to show that they could potentially rival the efficiency of semiconducting devices fabricated in microfabrication facilities. Plus, we can easily print a semiconducting device on a curved surface, and they can’t.

McAlpine and his team are known for combining 3D printing, biology, and electronics on a single platform. They received global attention some years ago for printing a “bionic ear.” Since then, they have 3D printed life-like artificial organs for surgical practice, electronics directly on a moving hand, electronic fabric that could serve as “bionic skin,” and cells and scaffolds that could help people dealing with spinal cord injuries recover some function.



McAlpine says the next steps are to create a prototype with more light receptors that are even more efficient. They’d also like to find a way to print on a soft hemispherical material that can be implanted into a real eye.