Frustrated with inflexible hardware, chemists at the University of Glasgow in Scotland decided to improve their lab equipment with help from a $2,000 3D printer and free open-source software. They're calling their development "reactionware," and its chief strength is versatility.
Reactionware is printed out of off-the-shelf bathroom sealant, giving the researchers a container that can re-seal itself when punctured. It's also readily moldable, which comes in handy for taking samples — cut the vessel in half to get solid materials out, and then glue it back together to use again later. That flexibility is key: a typical scientific experiment can involve transferring materials through a series of vessels, combining them to observe reactions, and then extracting samples to measure results. A tried and true process, but one that can require lots of redundant glassware. These 3D printed containers can be designed to fit a particular task at hand, while being inexpensive enough to be produced at will.
Another underlying benefit to 3D printing labware is the ability to cast the experiment's reagents directly into the end product. These researchers behind reactionware printed their experiment's catalyst inside their bespoke labware, kicking off chemical reactions quickly and efficiently. Some of the containers have also been designed to accommodate monitoring hardware and electrodes, so that experiments can be tracked and altered on the fly, in a single vessel.
While promising, the researchers acknowledge that their reactionware isn't replacing traditional glassware any time soon — steel and glass are hardier, and mass-produced on such a scale as to be relatively expensive for larger facilities. But scientific experiments don't always connect with the one-size-fits-all world of commercial glassware. A 3D-printed solution would do wonders to drive down costs for groups like schools or rural hospitals that could use inexpensive, customizable equipment for testing and experiments.