Silicon Based Microreactors | Klavs F. Jensen MIT

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The microscale revolution in chemistry promises to transform classical batch wise laboratory procedures into integrated systems capable of providing new understanding of fundamental chemical processes as well as rapid, continuous discovery and development of new products with less use of resources and waste generation. Applications of silicon based microreactors are illustrated with a broad range of cases studies, including high throughput experimentation in organic synthesis, integration of ultraviolet (UV), visible and infrared (IR) spectroscopy; investigations of high temperature heterogeneous catalytic reactions, obtaining high mass transfer rates in gas-liquid reactions over solid catalysts, enabling difficult to perform reactions, synthesis of solid nanoparticles, and high temperature conversion of hydrocarbons to hydrogen.



Practical Deployment of Micro-Reactors | ICIS

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30 April 2009 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Despite their modest size, microreactors can outperform traditional reactors that are hundreds or thousands of times larger

PRESSED BY margin shrinkage and environmental considerations to streamline costs and reduce environmental damage, many of the biggest names in fine chemicals, specialty chemicals, pharmaceuticals and consumer products are developing applications for microreactors. Some companies are already using them for commercial production.

Microreactors are even being developed for the production of bulk chemicals such as ethylene, methanol, styrene, vinyl acetate monomer (VAM), formaldehyde and ethylene oxide (EO).

It might seem counterintuitive that something called a microreactor could produce 10,000 tonnes/year of a specialty chemical, much less contribute meaningfully to a commodity market, but microreactors are not a batch technology. Because they employ flow chemistry – a continuous process – the principles governing their operation and economics are fundamentally different.


Like petrochemical plants – the chemical industry’s most intensive users of flow processing – microreactors do chemistry in tubes. But while a typical hydrocracking reactor might have a diameter of 4m, the tubes in microreactors can range between 10 microns and 5mm.

Because reactions in these narrow spaces tend to be extremely fast, the channels, as they are called, are also quite short. Issues related to mixing – heat transfer, mass transfer and hydrodynamics – which slow transformations and allow side reactions in large reactors, are effectively eliminated in microreactors, where mixing is essentially instantaneous, hence the speed. Reaction kinetics become the only factor limiting progress, and rates can increase dramatically.

A growing number of chemical manufacturers are trying to exploit the resulting advantages. They include Switzerland-based Clariant, Sigma Aldrich subsidiary SAFC, Germany’s BASF and Evonik Industries, Netherlands-based DSM, US-based DuPont, and pharmaceutical companies Schering-Plough, Sanofi Aventis, Roche, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Astra Zeneca. Even consumer products giant Procter & Gamble has worked with them.

Dutch fine chemical producer DSM, which has used a microreactor developed by US-based Corning to produce more than 25 tonnes of a nitration product under cGMP conditions in four weeks, will receive a Corning reactor capable of over 100 tonnes of the product annually later this year.

Siegfried, Schering-Plough, PCAS, Isochem and Lonza have also tested technology from Corning, which is developing reactors for “several other major customers,” as well, according to Gary Calabrese, vice president, science and technology at Corning.

Other developers of microreactor technology include Micronit Microfluidics, Future Chemistry, Ehrfeld Mikrotechnik BTS, Uniqsis, Syrris, the Institut fur Mikrotechnik Mainz and Velocys.

The devices supplied by these companies differ in various respects. For example, Corning’s microreactors feature relatively large channels in the millimeter range, which can increase throughput and reduce clogging. They could actually be called millireactors, and indeed the company prefers the term “Advanced Flow” reactor technology.

However, certain advantages are common to all microreactors: improved selectivity and reliability; safety; cost savings; and greater speed to market.

More selective and reliable chemistry results from greater process control. Flow rate, channel length and extremely efficient heat transfer can all be adjusted in micro-reactors to optimize reaction time and temperature. One benefit is less waste, which in turn lowers costs.

“Testing has shown over and over again that energy, processing chemicals and waste are all reduced when using these reactors,” says Calabrese. “In some cases, companies can even eliminate costly purification steps because the products coming out of the Corning reactor are of much higher purity.”

Costs also benefit from greater safety, the result not only of greater process control, but also of small reactor volume, which minimizes the impact of mishaps.

When expensive cryogenic reactors or explosion-proof facilities can be replaced with microreactors, costs are reduced, notes Andreas Weiler, global business director at US-based SAFC, which uses microreactors to produce about 50 commercial products of up to multi-kilogram quantities.

Costs may be further reduced by the smaller footprint, he adds. “Although a sizeable collection vessel will still be required and further work-up and purification procedures are often needed, the space and equipment requirements for the reactors themselves are lower.”

Microreactors also simplify scale up, shortening time to market. Whereas batch processes must often be altered considerably in the transfer to large-scale production, microreactor processes can proceed largely unmodified. Instead, they can be run using multiple microreactors in parallel, a practise called “numbering up.”

“Usually in scale up, modeling is not too predictive,” explains Volker Hessel, head of the department of chemical process technology at the Institut fur Mikrotechnik Mainz (IMM), in Germany. “Here you have very regular flows. You can predict some of the behavior, and you use the same units throughout the development chain – ideally. In practise, this is somewhat different, but it is still a major improvement. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, as is done now.”

Microreactors often provide a better way to achieve established transformations, but the greater process control and safety also facilitate more difficult or novel chemistries.

“At SAFC, we are finding that continuous microreactors allow us to carry out a number of useful reactions that simply would not be possible in a batch reactor,” says Weiler. “Depending on the process and batch size, they can also be more cost-effective for reactions that already run well in a batch reactor.”

Corning’s Calabrese agrees. “The unique integration of heat control with the reaction layers enables new chemical paths not approachable with traditional batch technology, and the continuous process provides for effective management of unstable intermediates,” he observes.

The IMM’s Hessel, a widely acknowledged authority on microreactor technology, is methodically exploring the expanded range of chemistries possible in microreactors. He employs harsh conditions such as high temperature and pressure to access “novel process windows” in which reaction rates are much higher, even by orders of magnitude.

“We go to the limits to release the true chemical potential,” Hessel explains.


Most applications being developed for microreactors involve specialty chemicals, fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals, but Velocys, a US-based company recently acquired by UK-based Oxford Catalysts, is focused on bulk chemicals. Among its partners are US-based Dow Chemical Company and Japan-based Toyo Engineering.

“Most microreactor companies offer small-scale microreactors without catalysts that process liquid phase flow,” explains Laura J Silva, director, IP and licensing, at Velocys and Oxford Catalysts. “In contrast, Velocys microchannel reactors can incorporate heterogeneous catalysts or sorbents, and can process large amounts of material at a wide range of temperatures, including high temperatures, and a wide range of pressures, including high pressures.”

Applications of Velocys’ technology include ethylene via the oxidative dehydrogenation of ethane; dimethylether (DME) directly from syngas; the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) process; steam methane reforming; hydrocracking; higher alcohols from syngas; and the production of methanol, styrene, vinyl acetate monomer, formaldehyde and ethylene oxide.

Although microreactors will not replace the large petrochemical complexes that are the chemical industry’s most intensive users of flow chemistry, there are circumstances where the size and portability of microreactors are more beneficial than economies of scale. For example, it is not cost-effective to transport biomass long distances for conversion to fuel, hence Velocys’ biomass-to-liquids (BTL) project.

Last year, Velocys demonstrated a two-gallon-per-day BTL microreactor using a new, highly active FT catalyst developed by Oxford Catalysts. The device operated for more than 3,000 hours and achieved productivities of over 1,500 kg/m3/h. Standard fixed bed FT reactors typically operate at productivities of around 100 kg/m3/h, Silva notes, and slurry bed FT reactors at around 200 kg/m3/h. A larger-scale demonstration of the BTL process will take place later this year at the Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, US.

The same principle lies behind the company’s offshore gas-to-liquids project, which targets stranded gas. In the case of materials such as ethylene oxide, on the other hand, the problem is the transportation of the product, and the solution is in situ generation at small scale.

Challenges do remain on the path to widespread adoption of microreactor technology, says Harmen Lelivelt, sales engineer at Netherlands-based Micronit Microfluidics. They include the integration of online control, the integration of separation steps, solids handling and the cost of large microreactors. Whereas a complete lab unit might cost from €10,000-70,000 ($13,000-90,000), a dedicated production plant runs from €100,000-500,000, he says.

However, microreactor technology clearly has momentum. IMM’s Hessel says it may be another 10 years before microreactors are considered a regular tool, but he expects a fifth of processors to employ them. Corning’s Calabrese believes that as much as 30% of the fine chemicals and drugs currently in production could be made more efficiently using microreactors.

Lelivelt anticipates growing interest among R&D groups and gradual acceptance and implementation by industry. “It will be an important [tool],” he says, “one that will certainly claim its place in chemical technology.”


Unclogging the problems of flow chemistry | Chemistry World

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13 January 2011
US scientists have found a way to stop solid byproducts clogging channels in continuous flow reactors, a problem that has hampered their progress for use in manufacturing pharmaceuticals.

Klavs Jensen, Stephen Buchwald and their team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology believe that flow methods will become increasingly important in the future of pharmaceuticals and chemical manufacturing. ‘One of the biggest hurdles is handling solids,’ says group member Timothy Noël. ‘Precipitates can form during the reactions, which usually lead to irreversible clogging of microchannels in the reactors.’ Previous methods suggested to overcome this problem include introducing another solvent to dissolve the solids, but this can reduce the overall efficiency of the reactions. Now, the team have used an ultrasound bath to break up the byproducts to prevent clogging.

Traditionally, pharmaceutical manufacture is done in a batch-based system, but the process suffers from interruptions and the need to transport material between batch reactors. Performing these reactions in a continuous flow system would speed up the process and reduce chemical waste.

Unclogging the problems of flow chemistry

Reagents were introduced into a tube, which was then placed in an ultrasonic bath heated to 60 degrees Celsius. When the reagents exited the reactor, the reaction was mixed with a quench of water and ethyl acetate in a larger tube, allowing plenty of time for salt byproducts to dissolve

The team tested the method on palladium-catalysed C-N cross-coupling reactions, making amines that are common in biologically active molecules. The reactions couple aryl halides to nitrogen nucleophiles and form byproducts – inorganic salts – that are insoluble in the solvents used.

As a result, says Noël, they were able to obtain diarylamine products with reaction times ranging from 20 seconds to 10 minutes. At very short residence times (time in the reactor under reaction conditions) they observed a significantly higher rate for the reaction in flow compared to the equivalent batch experiments. With high conversions in short reaction times, they were able to reduce the catalyst loading in flow to just 0.1 mol per cent. ‘Extremely low catalyst loadings such as these are of particular interest to the pharmaceutical industry,’ says Noël.

Noël believes that in the future microfluidics will be used to construct increasingly complex molecules. Different devices will automate and integrate many synthetic steps that are currently performed using the more traditional and time-consuming batch-based practices.

Oliver Kappe, from the Christian Doppler Laboratory for Microwave Chemistry, Institute of Chemistry, Karl-Franzens-University Graz says: ‘Jensen and Buchwald clearly demonstrate that immersing a flow device into an ultrasound bath can prevent clogging problems that unfortunately are all too familiar to the flow/microreactor community.’


CONCEPT: Micro-Reactor

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Microreactors. Prospects already achieved and possible misuse*

Holger Löwe‡, Volker Hessel, and Andreas Mueller

IMM Institut für Mikrotechnik Mainz GmbH, Carl Zeiss Strasse 18-20, D-55129, Mainz, Germany

Abstract: Microreactors as a novel concept in chemical technology enable the introduction of new reaction procedures in chemistry, pharmaceutical industry, and molecular biology. Miniaturized reaction systems offer many exceptional technical advantages for a large number of applications. The large surface-to-volume ratio of miniaturized fluid components allows for significantly enhanced process control and heat management. Moreover, the
unique possibilities of microchemical systems pave the way to a distributed point-of-use and on-demand production of extremely harmful and toxic substances.

On the other side of the coin, miniaturization of complete set-ups for chemical syntheses to a suitcase or even to a shoe-box size opens several possibilities to possibly use them as tools for terrorist attacks and to facilitate the clandestine manufacture of chemical agents. Microfabrication techniques are common and allow the machining of special materials (e.g., high-alloyed steel, titanium, ceramics, or glass). Meanwhile, micromachining techniques are available anywhere in the world. Therefore, these techniques are no longer unique nor proprietary and they cannot prevent construction or distribution of microreaction systems by people with allegiance to a terrorist organization.


The use of miniaturized reactors with characteristic dimensions below (and sometimes above) 1 mm attracted great attention in chemical engineering recently. From the early concepts in the late 1980s to commonly available microreactor devices and semi-production-like setups, a worldwide research and development was done not only at universities but also by chemical industry. The development of metal microreactor components such as micro heat exchangers or micromixers and, further, the integration of these devices into an existing production line for fine chemicals were important milestones.

Microreactors offer many advantages for the performance of heat- and mass-transfer-limited reactions. Large gradients in concentration and temperature are achieved by shrinking the characteristic dimensions of a microreactor down to the micro scale. This is especially advantageous in the case of highly exothermal reactions as well as in the case of mass-transport-limited processes. Based on these technical advantages, new and unusual process regimes become technically feasible. For instance, the fluorination of toluene with elemental fluorine was carried out in a microreactor set-up comprising reaction channels and heat exchanger structures in close proximity. Due to the explosive character, this reaction could only be carried out in conventional equipment at –70 °C very carefully under lab-scale conditions. By using a specially developed microreactor, the reaction mechanism could be changed from a radical chain type (uncontrollable, unselective) to an electrophilic substitution one (safe, selective) even at –10 °C. The type of microreactor that was used for the synthesis was a falling-film reactor with a microstructured reaction plate, which is a means of distributing the liquid and increasing the internal
surface (Fig. 1).

For a couple of years, microreactors were used for small-lot production of chemicals. Some examples describe the formation of organometallic compounds. By using matchbox-sized micromixers, a tremendous increase of yield and selectivity was observed, even by increasing the reaction temperature from below 0 °C up to 50 °C. Typical set-ups of mixer-tube reactors are given in Fig. 2. An important further motivation to use microreactors for chemical processes arises from safety considerations. Very small hold-up of hazardous substance can significantly decrease the expenditure for safety installations. Even working with pure oxygen in the explosive envelope might be possible in a lab-scale environment. Attempts to study the extremely hazardous H2–O2 reaction were examined at the Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe (FZK) [1].

In most cases, explosions can be suppressed by using microchannels with a hydraulic diameter below the quenching distance [2]. The microsystem becomes inherently safe, although not necessarily the complete set-up, because it acts itself as flame arrester. Even if an explosion occurs, an impact to the environment can be neglected.  Reactions under high-pressure conditions such as hydrogenations with pure hydrogen seem to be possible with minor safety regulations (Fig. 3).

A high integration of microdevices is useful for the build-up of compact microplants, but it can also be interesting if a number of chemical reactions are operated in parallel (e.g., for the parallel screening of materials such as catalysts and pharmaceutical active substances). These devices cannot be considered micro in their general outer appearance. But the single reactors that carry the materials to be screened are often microstructured, so these devices may be called microstructured reactors compared to the usually much smaller microreactors. The reactor set-up for 48 single reactors is shown in Fig. 4.

A number of companies such as Cellular Process Chemistry (CPC), Mainz; mgt mikroglas, Mainz;  FZK; and IMM are working presently on the design of highly integrated microdevices for the set-up of complete chemical microplants. A drawback of their product portfolio is still the lack of standardized interfaces which would correspond to industrial solutions like standardized flanges. First attempts to solve this problem are undertaken by the American Center for Process Analytical Chemistry (CPAC) consortium [3] (Fig. 5), and by the German consortium of microprocess engineering [4].

Another drawback to establishing complete chemical plants is the lack of separation-type unit operations for the isolation of pure products such as extraction and rectification devices. First successful results with the rectification were reported in the meanwhile [5]. Extraction in microdevices is sometimes performed by the well-known concept of mixer-settler [6], which is limited in its application to substances with fast-settling characteristics. Another more innovative extraction approach refers to the continuous, parallel guiding of two liquids without intermixing them, which is achieved by precisely defining their interface via slits (dislocation of corresponding microchannels) or microstructured membranes. However, these drawbacks are being recognized and will be dealt with in the future.


It cannot be denied that microreactors have the potential to be used in military or terrorist applications. They can be fabricated by common technologies, of course, only by highly skilled personnel at present; but in the future, without any doubt, they can be fabricated in a regular workshop. With the knowledge of chemical fundamentals and advice found on the Internet, the fabrication of chemicals scheduled 2–3, and in some cases even scheduled 1, by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is no longer restricted to a chemical lab. Of course, there are high risks to handling highly toxic chemicals, but after the September 11th event it cannot be excluded that terrorists will not discourage a chemical weapons (CW) attack.

Besides the older chemical weapons chlorine and phosgene, methyl isocyanate becomes more and more important as a precursor for chemical weapons. This substance, widely used in chemical industry, is volatile and extremely toxic. The pilfering of this substance from a production plant cannot be noticed, but the transport is high-risk. But it is conceivable to make methyl isocyanate by catalytic dehydrogenation of N-methylformamide, a common and less-toxic solvent, by applying a microreactor set-up.

To prevent handling of lethal nerve gases (e.g., sarin, soman, or VX), so-called binary weapons were developed. In a last step, two primary less-toxic compounds were mixed at the point of use immediately. The same mechanism can be employed by using highly efficient micromixers, which carry out a complete mixing in less than a few milliseconds at a throughput of several litres per hour [7].

A “pocket” chemical plant, as shown in Fig. 6, cannot be monitored or detected. In this context, it has to be pointed out that the shown pocket plant was “placebo equipment” serving only for rough graphic nature without any realistic background on chemical engineering issues (Fig. 6).


The situation of “microreactors”, better called “microprocess engineering” is complex. We found many possibilities for applying microsystems in chemical research and even in chemical production. In the last five years, the field has become more and more attractive and a couple of start-up companies and research departments in the chemical industry were founded. The results of the research are promising, and some changes in chemical process technology are observable. From our point of view, we never expected a possible use of microreactors for fabrication of CW or for terrorist attacks, which so far has not been reported.


1. K. Haas-Santo, O. Görke, K. Schubert, J. Fiedler, H. Funke. In A Microstructure Reactor System for the Controlled Oxidation of Hydrogen for Possible Aoolication in Space, M. Matlosz, W. Ehrfeld, J. P. Baselt (Eds.), Microreaction Technology—IMRET 5: Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Microreaction Technology, pp. 313–320, Springer-Verlag, Berlin (2001).

2. G. Veser. “Experimental and theoretical investigation of H2 oxidation in a high-temperature catalytic microreactor”, Chem. Eng. Sci. 56, 1265–1273 (2001).



5. M. Hampe. Trennverfahren im Mikromaßstab, Statusseminar Modulare Mikroverfahrenstechnik, 28 February 2002, Dechema, Frankfurt, Germany.

6. K. Benz, K.-J. Regenauer, K.-P. Jäckel, J. Schiewe, W. Ehrfeld, H. Löwe, V. Hessel. “Utilisation of micromixers for extraction processes”, Chem. Eng. Technol. 24 (1), 11–17 (2001).

7. V. Hessel, T. Dietrich, A. Freitag, S. Hardt, C. Hofmann, H. Löwe, H. Pennemann, A. Ziogas. In Fast Mixing in Interdigital Micromixers Achieved by Means of Extreme Focusing, Proceedings, International Conference of Microreaction Technology, New Orleans, 11–14 March 2002.


G. W. Parshall. “Scientific and technical developments and the CWC”, In The Chemical Weapons Convention – Implementation Challenges and Solutions, Jonathan B. Tucker (Ed.), Monterey Institute for International Studies, Monterey, CA, April 2001.

C. A. Tolman and W. Parshall. “Fifty year trends in the chemical industry”, J. Chem. Educ. 76 (2) 177–189 (1999).

J. M. Tour. “Do-it-yourself chemical weapons”, Chem. Eng. News July 10, 42–49 (2000).

© 2002 IUPAC, Pure and Applied Chemistry 74, 2271–2276


New Technique for Nanostructure Assembly Pioneered | Science Daily

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ScienceDaily (Oct. 18, 2012) — A team of researchers from the University of Florida department of chemistry has developed a new technique for growing new materials from nanorods.

Materials with enhanced properties engineered from nanostructures have the potential to revolutionize the marketplace in everything from data processing to human medicine. However, attempts to assemble nanoscale objects into sophisticated structures have been largely unsuccessful. The UF study represents a major breakthrough in the field, showing how thermodynamic forces can be used to manipulate growth of nanoparticles into superparticles with unprecedented precision.

The study is published in the Oct. 19 edition of the journal Science.

“The reason we want to put nanoparticles together like this is to create new materials with collective properties,” said Charles Cao, associate professor of chemistry at UF and corresponding author of the study. “Like putting oxygen atoms and hydrogen atoms together in a two-to-one ratio — the synergy gives you water, something with properties completely different from the ingredients themselves.”

In the UF study, a synergism of fluorescent nanorods, sometimes used as biomarkers in biomedical research, resulted in a superparticle with an emission polarization ratio that could make it a good candidate for use in creating a new generation of polarized LEDs, used in display devices like 3-D television.

“The technology for making the single nanorods is well established,” said Tie Wang, a postdoctoral researcher at UF and lead author of the study. “But what we’ve lacked is a way to assemble them in a controlled fashion to get useful structures and materials.”

The team bathed the individual rods in a series of liquid compounds that reacted with certain hydrophobic regions on the nanoparticles and pushed them into place, forming a larger, more complex particle.

Two different treatments yielded two different products.

“One treatment gave us something completely unexpected — these superparticles with a really sophisticated structure unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Wang said.

The other yielded a less complex structure that Wang, and his colleagues were able to grow it into a small square of polarized film about one quarter the size of a postage stamp.

The researchers said that the film could be used to increase efficiency in polarized LED television and computer screens by up to 50 percent, using currently available manufacturing techniques.

“I’ve worked in nanoparticle assembly for a decade,” said Dmitri Talapin, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago who was not involved with the study. “There are all sorts of issues to be overcome when assembling building blocks from nanoscale particles. I don’t think anyone has been able to get them to self-assemble into superparticles like this before.”

“They have achieved a tour-de-force in precision and control,” he said.


US Military Gets Into the 3D Printing Business | New Scientist

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AN ISOLATED military outpost in the middle of hostile territory is a bad place for your equipment to break down. Replacement parts and fuel either have to be air-dropped or driven through dangerous territory. So the US military plans to make remote operating bases and camps self-sufficient, able to generate their own energy and even print their own gadgets.

Advances in radio, GPS and surveillance equipment have changed how the US military deploys its troops, says Bob Charette of the Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Office. Instead of being bunched in large groups that slowly march across enemy territory, soldiers are now strategically scattered in independent camps that span an entire war zone. These can range from operating bases with a few hundred soldiers to lookout posts of less than a dozen.

Such isolated bases are “the tip of the spear”, says Pete Newell, who heads the US army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF). But they often have difficulty getting equipment. It can take months to receive parts that need to be shipped from the US.

To speed up the process, REF has put together three mobile laboratories in 6-metre-long shipping containers. Each lab comes with tools such as plasma cutters and jigsaws, a 3D printer that prints in plastic or metal and a scientist and engineer to run them. The labs, which cost about $2.8 million, can be picked up by helicopter and set down just about anywhere.

The first lab was shipped to Afghanistan in July, and a second will be deployed next month. So far, they have allowed soldiers to fix technical problems on the spot, Newell says. “Every 10th guy has a great idea.” For instance, the 54 °C heat in Afghanistan was playing havoc with the batteries in a ground-penetrating radar system used to search for mines, so soldiers used the 3D printer to make a shielding case to protect them. It worked so well that everyone wanted one, Newell says, so the team emailed the design back to the US, where it could be mass-produced and distributed among other combat units.

Soldiers have also used the labs to design hooks for defusing explosive devices, and parts to repair robots. Printing weapons is not on the agenda, Newell says, although fixing them might be. He also envisions printing more complex objects, like batteries and solar panels, which has been shown to be technically feasible (Advanced Materials,

Sherry Lassiter at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s FabLab says that the labs could be helpful for rebuilding an area after a natural disaster as necessities such as drug delivery devices or antennas for Wi-Fi communication could be prototyped and printed quickly and easily. But she and Nadya Peek, also of FabLab, worry that for long-term disaster relief missions that can stretch to months or even years, resupplying the raw materials needed to run the labs might prove costly. “The military tends to do things very expensively,” says Peek.

From the military’s point of view, however, the price of the labs is outweighed by the ability to give combat units an extra degree of self-sufficiency while lowering the number of risky resupply missions that must be carried out.

“We can’t be competing against the fragile [fuel and water] infrastructure that’s often the root cause of the conflict in the first place,” says Newell. “We’re trying to get those unit locations completely off the grid.”


Patent could shackle 3D printers with DRM | New Scientist

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One of the greatest benefits of 3D printing technology – the ability to make replacements or parts for household objects like toys, utensils and gadgets – may be denied to US citizens thanks to the granting of a sweeping patent that prevents the printing of unauthorised 3D designs. It has all the makings of the much-maligned digital rights management (DRM) system that prevented copying of Apple iTunes tracks – until it was abandoned as a no-hoper in 2009.

US patent 8286236, granted on 9 October to Intellectual Ventures of Bellevue, Washington, lends a 3D printer the ability to assess whether a computer design file it’s reading has an authorisation code appended that grants access for printing. If it does not, the machine simply refuses to print – whether it’s a solid object, a textile or even food that’s being printed.

The piracy of 3D designs is an emerging concern, and 3D object sharing – rather than file sharing – sites have already sprung up. While no 3D printer maker has adopted what might be called “3D DRM”, international treaties like the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement mean it is not out of the question. Clamping down on moves to 3D-print handguns may fuel such moves, for instance.

What has riled some tech commentators (here and here for instance) is the fact that Intellectual Ventures that does not make 3D printers at all, but simply trades in patent rights – a practice detractors call patent trolling.

The firm, run by Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold, quietly files patents under the names of a great many shell companies (as this Stanford University analysis shows) and then licenses them to companies using the ideas it lays claim to, litigating if it has to. Intellectual Ventures is thought to hold more than 40,000 patents.

The new patent may face challenges to its validity, however, because it extends rights management beyond 3D printing to much older computerised manufacturing techniques, such as computer-controlled milling, extrusion, die casting and stamping.

Companies in those businesses are likely to have previously considered some kind of design rights authentication, says Greg Aharonian, of in San Francisco. He says that museums were wondering how to protect 3D sculptures against printer piracy back in 2002 and that DRM was in the frame then. So Intellectual Ventures’ claim to novelty – a key part of whether any patent is determined to be valid and enforceable – looks weak.


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