A glimpse of that future was recently made available by scientists at Princeton, who announced the successful creation of a 3-D printed “bionic ear.” A mix of electronic and biological materials, the cyborgian device could potentially listen to a wider range of radio frequencies than the ears we’re born with.
According to a press statement, “The researchers’ primary purpose was to explore an efficient and versatile method of merging electronics with tissue. The scientists used 3-D printing of cells and nanoparticles–with an off-the-shelf printer purchased off the Internet–followed by cell culture to combine a small coil antenna with cartilage, creating what they term a bionic ear.”
More specifically, researchers combined calf cells, which developed into cartilage, with an antenna made from silver nanoparticles. “This is the first time that researchers have demonstrated that 3-D printing is an effective strategy for interweaving tissue with electronics,” the press release continues.
While it will take more research before the scientists could implant the ear into a human patient, the functional organ marks an important advance in technology aimed at bridging electronics with tissue. “Biological structures are soft and squishy, composed mostly of water and organic molecules, while conventional electronic devices are hard and dry, composed mainly of metals, semiconductors and inorganic dielectrics,” explains David Gracias, a Johns Hopkins engineer and co-author on a paper published about the ear in the journal Nano Letters. “The differences in physical and chemical properties between these two material classes could not be any more pronounced.”
Reconciling those challenges could one day lead to a new class of “smart implants,” like self-monitoring knee replacements and other super-human organs.