10/11/2012 05:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

3D Printers Can Now Print Chemicals

3D printers, or additive manufacturing as it is also called, have gone beyond printing prototypes to printing final products ready for use such as jewelry, chairs, human jaw bones, and parts for jet engines to name just a few. 3D printers work by using lasers to deposit and fuse a thin layer upon layer of materials such as plastic or metals to create a solid object.

Recently, Professor Lee Cronin from the University of Glosgow has taken the idea of 3D printing a step further. He's using a $2,000 3D printer to print lab equipment--blocks containing chambers that connect to mixing chambers--and then injecting the desired ingredients into the chambers to produce organic and/or inorganic reactions that can yield chemicals, and in some cases new compounds. 

Just as early 3D printers were used for rapid prototyping, his new chemical printer can initially be used to rapidly discover new compounds.  And if you look at the development of 3D printers, it is not hard to see that in the near future you could print highly specialized chemicals and even pharmaceuticals. The team is currently working on printing ibuprofen, the main ingredient in popular painkillers. This, of course, raises a regulatory red flag, and it will be difficult to regulate what individuals in all parts of the world will do with access to the Internet and a 3D chemical printer.

Additionally, thanks to the ability to share chemical recipes over the Internet, it is not hard to see that this will also bring specialized chemical production of all types to anyone, anywhere. In fact, in a recent presentation, Cronin mentioned that a wide variety of drugs and everyday products such as detergents are made from ingredients that are readily available, such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, paraffin, glycerol, and corn syrup to name just a few.

The era of on-demand manufacturing has already started with 3D printing, and now we can all see the speed at which the revolution is moving as researchers and entrepreneurs around the world realize the endless new possibilities that abound.