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On the cutting edge of 3D printing for portable devices

On the cutting edge of 3D printing for portable devices

Image: ARC Future Fellow, Professor Michael Breadmore, in the lab. Image courtesy: Jason Purdie.

Image: ARC Future Fellow, Professor Michael Breadmore, in the lab. Image courtesy: Jason Purdie.
ARC Future Fellow, Professor Michael Breadmore, who is based at the University of Tasmania, has spent his research career working to simplify and speed up the analysis of chemical and biological samples, with an increasing emphasis on miniaturisation.

His research has developed devices that can identify drugs in a drop of blood, explosive compounds from swab samples, the chemical signature of Tasmanian Devil facial tumour disease, and the nutrient levels of agricultural water. With a new $630,000 grant, under the ARC Linkage Projects scheme, Professor Breadmore is now leading a research team to further miniaturise these tests using 3D printed technology, and has developed a close and productive partnership with a manufacturer to print new ‘lab on a chip’ devices.

“I have been interested in 3D printing technology for a long time,” says Professor Breadmore. “A couple of years ago, I was looking through a crowdfunding site, and I found a new 3D printer being developed. Crowdfunding is potentially risky, but I decided to see what would happen and invested in one of their printers and it was very good. Our paper received some international attention, which I shared with the manufacturers, Young Optics Ltd, who were equally as excited about an entirely new opportunity for their printer. Now over the course of three years, we have developed a close partnership and have visited their factories in Taiwan, and their president has visited us here in Tasmania. ”

Now Professor Breadmore and his team are developing printable analytical devices that will look like credit cards and can plug into an iPhone. “We are working with Young Optics to overcome the limitations of the present generation of 3D printers. This is a really big moment. We are on the cusp of a technological leap.”

Professor Breadmore’s research pathway has received ARC support through a 2004 Australian Postdoctoral Fellowship, a 2008 Queen Elizabeth II Fellowship, a 2013 Future Fellowship, as well as a number of Linkage Projects and Discovery Projects grants.  “The continuing funding support through ARC fellowships meant that I initially had the space to focus on fundamental research. Now I am turning this expertise into research translation for industry,” he said.

Since working as a Chief Investigator at the ARC Training Centre for Portable Analytical Separation Technologies (ASTech) awarded in 2014, the Training Centre has given a new industry focus to Professor Breadmore’s research. “The ARC Training Centre is a unique opportunity that forces me to think differently as an academic," says Professor Breadmore. “For example, our industry partner, Trajan Scientific and Medical, wanted to make a new device to collect an accurate drop of blood, store it on paper while it is transported to the lab, and then integrate into existing laboratory workflows to simplify the analysis and reduce the possibility for contamination. The result is HemaPEN—a product that has gone from conception to having manufactured prototypes being evaluated by end-users within 2.5 years. This rate of translation of academic research is exceptional and is indicative of what can truly be achieved by close collaboration between industry and academia”.

As part of the design of the ARC Training Centre, students and early career researchers are embedded within industry partners’ organisations, to give them valuable experience in applying their research to meet commercial goals. “Most of our students really love being in an industry setting,” says Professor Breadmore. “Sometimes they like it so much, they don’t come back! Which is a fine outcome, by the way.”

Through close collaboration with, and embedding researchers within, companies, Australian research expertise will reside at the heart of the breakthroughs that shape the next generation of portable analytic devices. 

Image: ARC Future Fellow, Professor Michael Breadmore, in the lab.
Image courtesy: Jason Purdie.

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