Soon you might print a solution to a disaster

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A large-scale disaster happens, and recovery could involve pressing “print.”

Advances in 3-D printing technology are happening fast. Just six months ago, it was extraordinary for a drone to photograph a structure or plot of forest and then send dimensions and data, down to the detail of individual trees, to a 3-D printer. But today, this is almost routine, and it is plausible to use a 3-D printed topographical map at a recovery command center after a building collapse.

Three-D printing already can provide these things:

— Personalized food.
— Topographical maps.
— Concrete-like construction materials.

Physicians can print body parts and tailor-made prostheses for the critically injured. They are developing skin bioprinting to print skin cells for burn wounds.

How does it work?

Three-D printing synthesizes a three-dimensional object using layers of material formed under computer control. The technology has implications for disaster-recovery operations and can be used any time speed and mass production are essential.

In the aftermath of a devastating hurricane, for instance, or when a large number of people in a refugee camp need food, instead of hauling in high-volume, prepackaged food, lightweight 3-D printers could be used. A printer that takes up about 27 cubic feet (0.8 cubic meters) can assemble a 12-inch (30-centimeter) pizza in a minute.

In a project that started as a NASA effort to figure out ways to feed future astronauts on their way to Mars, BeeHex Inc. of Cupertino, California, uses 3-D printers to produce pizzas, food bars and desserts.

According to Jordan French of BeeHex, food products can be made with exact calorie counts for a personalized meal. The robot-made food experience will be clean, healthy and fast, he said.

Other new uses

Three-D map model (WhiteClouds)
Using 3-D printing, an Ogden, Utah, company makes map models like this for builders, farmers and miners. (WhiteClouds)

“It’s one thing to look at photographs and video, and it’s another to get the 3-D perspective from having a model sitting on a table in front of you,” said Cris Fowers, a manager for WhiteClouds. The Ogden, Utah, 3-D printing company makes map models for farmers, miners and builders.

Three-D medical technology is advancing rapidly too, and if bioprinting skin is successful, it will help treat burn injuries, which make up roughly 20 percent of battlefield casualties.

Three-D ear structure in dish of pink liquid (Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine)
Completed ear structure printed with the Integrated Tissue-Organ Printing System. (WFIRM)

Researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina are developing 3-D–printed human bones and muscles and, maybe one day, other organs besides skin.

Most human organs cannot yet be printed, partly because they are dense with cells and have high oxygen requirements, but researchers are working on it. The Wake Forest scientists have successfully engineered and implanted tubular organs, such as urine tubes, and hollow nontubular organs, such as the bladder.

Three-D printing can also help when it’s time to rebuild after a disaster. California researchers have developed 3-D–printed building material that is strong like concrete and made from carbon dioxide gas, the same gas spewed from power plants. The concrete-like product is a candidate for the Carbon XPrize, a contest to create usable products out of carbon dioxide.

The 3-D–printed CO2NCRETE has implications for building high-quality, affordable housing quickly and restoring infrastructure, said Gaurav Sant, an associate professor of engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles. Commercialization could happen by 2020, Sant said.

This article was written by freelance writer Kathleen Murphy.