Custom-built laboratory containers capable of testing chemical reactions are nothing new, but those same vessels including reagents built into the container material itself is a new concept.
Using low-cost 3D printers, researchers at the University of Glasgow have built "reactionware" they say can be used to perform chemistry inside sealed reactors made from polypropylene.
Used to perform hydrothermal chemical syntheses, the vessels built by chemical researchers Lee Cronin and Ross Forgan are the result of a process during which a portion of the vessel is printed and then reagents are added and sealed within. The instruments are then placed in an oven for finishing.
While it may seem counter-intuitive to undertake 'hot chemistry' in plastic vessels, the researchers say it's possible to carry out a wide range of hydrothermal chemical syntheses inside the sealed reactors.
Cronin says the method allows for printing of 'grids of sealed chambers' to allow for high-throughput screening of reactants and conditions. Since such hydrothermal synthesis experiments involving heating mixtures at up to 140˚C for many hours normally require expensive stainless steel autoclave 'bombs.' Cronin says the discovery will make those experiments less expensive and therefore, more accessible, to labs around the world.
"I wanted to know if we could extend the idea of using 3D printing to make compartments that could tolerate heat," says Cronin. "We've shown that the concept works, and that you can use it to discover new materials. Clearly, there are limitations involving solvent compatibility and taking the temperature beyond 150˚C, but most hydrothermal reactions use alcohol or water and most are done at 140 to 150˚C. Also there are other plastics available that do melt at higher temperatures."
To make the vessels from polypropylene, the process involves a multipart series of events.
"We partly printed the vessels. We then pause it in the middle, add the reagents, finish the printing so that the reagents are sealed inside, and put it in the oven," Cronin says.
Fellow chemists and researchers say Cronin and Forgan's work has huge potential in the development of new materials. One of the key results is the ability researchers will have to explore a large a variety of reaction conditions in a relatively simple and cheap process.
Cronin says his team are investigating ways chemistry can revolutionize modern technology, and among other projects, his lab has created a 3D printer for molecules and is investigating the possibility of making matter live using forms of what he calls "non-biological life" via his 'Apollo Project.'