How to print a crystal in 3D

Scientists in the US have devised a method for printing three dimensional models of crystals using a 3D printer, the original CIF file and freely available software that can be run on standard operating systems.

Rather than looking at a crystal on a screen, print it out and hold it in your hand

Crystallographers like to picture complex crystal structures in three dimensions. Many use software that allows them to visualise the structures in a virtual space, but a better option would a physical model that you could hold in your hand.

Ognjen Miljanić and coworkers at the University of Houston in Texas have developed a means of doing just that. Their step-by-step instructions detail how files that commonly store crystallographic information (known as CIF files) can be converted into a printable format, using Mercury, a piece of software currently in regular use by crystallographers, and Blender, a 3D computer graphics product often used for creating animated films. Programming experience and knowledge of 3D printing techniques are not a prerequisite for using the instructions. The team hope their procedure will make it easy for someone to use a 3D printer to manufacture and examine complex 3D crystal structures.

Miljanić points out that similar methods do already exist, but says theirs is particularly simple to use, and offers greater flexibility for printing certain types of structures, such as segments of so-called infinite structures.

Simon Leigh, a 3D printing expert at the University of Warwick in the UK is enthusiastic about the method. ‘It's providing researchers with a brilliant opportunity to get right in amongst the structures and see what's going on rather than just looking at them on a computer screen.’ James Bannock, a researcher at the Centre for Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London, UK, who regularly makes use of a 3D printer as part of his research, sees potential for its use in schools and universities. ‘The application here is potentially most interesting for teaching or outreach activities where high quality, vibrant models can be used to convey understanding of complex conformational structures in a fun and engaging way.’

The main barrier to widespread use of this technique is the lack of availability of 3D printers. ‘People are not fully aware of how much 3D printers have dropped in price in the last decade,’ says Miljanić. ‘They still think that that it’s a futuristic, really expensive technology, but it isn’t.’ Miljanić hopes that this facility will become commonplace in the near future.


This paper is free to access until 29 May 2014. Download it here:

T-H Chen et al, CrystEngComm, 2014, DOI: 10.1039/c4ce00371c

Related Content

Press P to print

25 June 2013 Feature

news image

Katharine Sanderson looks at the rise of 3D printers to create lab equipment, build biomaterials and much more

3D printing reveals shark skin secrets

14 May 2014 Research

news image

Facsimile skin with tiny tooth-like bumps improves shark's swimming efficiency by 6%

Most Read

Coated nanoparticles show Alzheimer's promise

12 September 2014 News and Analysis

news image

Gold nanoparticles functionalised with amino acid polymer inhibit the growth of amyloid fibres associated with neurodegenerat...

First flexible graphene display paves the way for folding electronics

11 September 2014 News and Analysis

news image

Team behind the bendy e-reader display hope to have a full colour graphene-based smartphone style screen within a year

Most Commented

Does life play dice?

3 September 2014 The Crucible

news image

Philip Ball wonders whether life evolved to exploit quantum phenomena, or if it’s just in our nature

The trouble with boycotts

29 August 2014 Critical Point

news image

Cutting academic ties with a censured state can do more harm than good, says Mark Peplow