Innovation Could Improve 3D-Printed Prostheses

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Two doctoral students at Texas A&M University have patented a coating that can make 3D-printed prosthetic devices more durable, and won an entrepreneurship award for the advance in July.

Brandon Sweeney and Blake Teipel, doctoral students in the materials science and engineering department at Texas A&M University won the Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship's 14th annual Raymond Ideas Challenge at Mays Business School for the business idea related to the coating, "Customizable Prosthesis via 3D Printing."

In a 3D-printed object, the seams where each polymer layer meets the next are typically the weakest point. The coating that Sweeney and Teipel developed uses carbon nanotubes to improve the weld strength of the plastic polymers used in the printing. Each nanotube is stronger than steel and bonds with other materials when heated. The researchers surrounded standard plastic filament with the nanotubes, then fed the material into a 3D printer, according to a 2014 article in Rapid Ready Tech. The nanotubes were sandwiched between layers of plastic as the 3D-printing process built an object. The finished object was then microwaved for a short period, forcing the carbon nanotubes to bond with the plastic filament. The bond formed between the nanotubes and the plastic filament is what makes the finished object more durable than using plastic filament alone. The increased weld strength can increase the strength and durability of 3D-printed prosthetic devices, making them more practical in less-resourced environments.

"With a typical 3D printed part, it will just peel apart in between the layers, so it's a pretty fragile piece, but for this technology, with the coating, as you print the layers you heat up the whole part and cause fusing to happen all across the entire component," Teipel told KBTX-TV. "Next generation materials are really making it possible for us to address problems that have so far been too expensive to too technologically advanced, especially for the world's poor."

"I want to develop the nanotechnology research I have worked on in the lab into a successful market product that transforms the way we manufacture parts and resolves the current limitations of energy storage," said Sweeney.

Their business idea was voted the best out of the 300 ideas and 40 finalists in the entrepreneurship competition, which netted the men the $3,000 first place award. The research was done with Micah Green, PhD, associate professor in the department of chemical engineering and an affiliated faculty member in the materials science and engineering department at Texas A&M.