GAME CHANGER? 3D Printing and the War on Germs

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Perhaps more than ever before, those of us who are not medically trained are coming to understand the necessity of disinfecting high-use items in order to prevent the rampant spread of viruses.

Clinical sterilization is even more critical in the maintenance of medical implements. Clinical sterilization processes must eliminate, remove, kill, or deactivate ALL forms of microorganisms and biological agents from medical tools and devices (including fungi, bacteria, viruses, spores, unicellular eukaryotic organisms and prions). There are a number of physical and chemical processes used in health care facilities to achieve sterilization: pressurized steam, dry heat, ethylene oxide gas, hydrogen peroxide gas plasma, and chemical solutions.

Items printed in common polymers like PLA and PETG simply cannot withstand traditional clinical sterilization processes.

Until now, this has rendered them at best into disposable one-use items and severely limited the utility of 3D printed medical components. (Note: It should be said that if you print a mask using one of these filaments using the 3D printer in your basement, you can use warm water and soap to disinfect it fairly effectively between uses. But boiling or bleaching may damage the integrity of the mask. And of course, hospitals have far more stringent sterilization requirements.)

The good news is that a new sterilization protocol may allow personal protection equipment (PPE) for medical personnel, and medical devices made with these filaments, to achieve clinical sterilization. Advanced Sterilization Processes (ASP) , in collaboration with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has developed a the new protocol for their STERRAD® Sterilizers. The STERRAD System uses hydrogen peroxide gas (H2O2) at relatively low temperature settings (only 50 degrees Celsius) to achieve sterilization. This allows implements made with polylactic acid (PLA) and polyethylene (PET) to be sterilized effectively. Both materials are resistant to H2O2, and have a glass transition points in excess of 50 degrees and so are not adversely affected by high temperatures.

It is no exaggeration to say that this could be a game-changer. Specialty filaments are now not necessarily required. The result? It is now faster, easier and cheaper for medical institutions and others to mass-produce PPE that can be used and re-used.

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