Medical applications for 3D printing often sound like science fiction, due to the technology’s novelty and the frequent appearance of bionic body parts in fiction. Additive manufacturing using ultraviolet light to harden polymer layers was invented in 1981 by Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute, but the fused deposition process used in most 3D printing today wasn’t developed until 1988 by S. Scott Crump, whose company Stratasys manufactured the first fused deposition machine. For a technology with such a short history, 3D printing quickly found astounding applications in many industries, from 3D printed guns to superyacht hull components. We’ve written about 3D printed bionic arms, muscles, pharmaceuticals, and more, with each new development an exciting technological leap with myriad potentials.

Borrowing from Bachman Turner Overdrive, “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.”

Researchers led by Michael McAlpine at the University of Minnesota successfully 3D printed a prototype for a bionic eye. The team published its research in Advanced Materials. Two significant advances in their work included 3D printed semiconductors and printing on a hemispherical surface. After first printing a silver ink base, the researchers printed photodiodes with semiconducting polymer materials. The photodiodes convert light into electricity. The next step will be to create a prototype with more photodiodes that are more efficient than the 25% efficiency of the current semiconductors. After meeting that challenge, the team will address technology to 3D print on soft hemispherical material suitable for implanting in a real eye.

This work could lead to relatively low-cost bionic prosthetic eyes that can replace a lost or damaged eye. If such a device could restore the patient’s vision, it would be a boon straight out of the pages of science fiction.