Frostburg Engineering Students Combine Science and Art to Create Model of Molecule for Classroom Use

Apr 6, 2017 12:40 PM

When Frostburg State University students in Dr. Rebekah Taylor’s biology labs handle an immunoglobulin (antibody) model, they see a scale representation about 1.8-million times larger than the actual molecule, but they don’t see the inter-departmental collaboration and student and faculty effort that created it. 

The complex plastic structure closely resembles many modern commercial models. Yet Taylor’s unique model is the result of an FSU Faculty Development Grant, a cross-departmental collaboration and the efforts of two talented student lab workers.

Taylor, assistant professor in the Biology Department, used to borrow commercial models from a scientific lending library for her classes, which would cost about $1,000 each to purchase.

“I didn’t let the students touch them because I was afraid they would get dropped. They were painted plaster. They looked really great, but if they were dropped, they would be in a million pieces, and they didn’t belong to me,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s concern is no more. Two student lab workers in FSU’s Physics and Engineering Machine Shop, sophomore Aili Wade and junior Jacob Williams, produced the new model out of durable ABS plastic through additive manufacturing, more commonly called 3D printing. They used data supplied by Taylor and Dr. Mahdi Norouzi, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Engineering.

The in-house model cost less than $100 to print, a 10th of the cost of comparable commercial models. Moreover, with the production process finalized, the Machine Shop can reliably produce new copies in about two days. Developing that process took somewhat longer, of course.

Unlike document or photo printers, 3D printers require significant planning and design work before successfully printing an object, layer by layer, in a variety of materials. Tolerances vary based on numerous factors, from the size and speed of the job to the temperature of the lab and much more. Additional print runs are typically required to perfect an object.

Fortunately, the two mechanical engineering majors working in the Machine Shop, Wade, who is lab manager, and Williams, who is the tolerance and process engineer, are experts in the complicated process. Under the guidance of Academic Lab Manager Duane Miller, the students produced and refined the new model from a computer-aided design (CAD) file from Taylor and Norouzi.

Taylor combed through 127,000-plus entries in the public Protein Data Bank maintained by the Research Collaboratory for Structural Bioinformatics. Once she identified the protein she wanted to print, she selected a space-fill depiction of the protein, which accurately recreates the physical surface structure of the molecule. Norouzi created the CAD file from Taylor’s data.

Miller and his students ran with it from there.

“This project pushed us,” said Miller, listing the hurdles his students had to clear.

The first printed model was too heavy; it split under its own weight once the temporary structures were removed. Wade and Williams experimented, reducing the infill percentage (the proportion of an item’s interior filled with printed material), which resulted in a lighter, equally rigid and more durable model.

After perfecting the structure, the Machine Shop team turned to surface texture. Commercial models are smooth. The printed model emerged with a rough, grainy finish. Miller researched post-production smoothing techniques, many of which were highly toxic or dangerous.

“We settled on an acetone-vapor bath,” Miller said. “It was the safest finishing process we could find.”

Safe does not mean easy. The first bath left the model a shriveled husk. Wade and Williams experimented until they found the ideal duration to polish the surface without altering the structure.

Finally, the team needed to identify the right paint to complete the model. Acrylic paints looked great but rubbed off easily. Fortunately, the model-building industry offered durable enamel paints in a rainbow of colors. After Wade and Williams tested their artistic skills, the model was ready for Taylor. It now sees regular use in her biology labs.

Wade and Williams carefully documented every step of the process to improve the Machine Shop’s capabilities and cut production time for future projects.

“I really think they’ve got an amazing thing going,” Taylor said, saying it could have an array of potential uses for nearly every scientific discipline at FSU.

Miller said that several departments have already inquired about printing projects of their own. Taylor also aims to build a range of teaching models.

“I can just give them the diagrams and they can make it, and it’s just beautiful,” she said. “I love it – I’m going to be their biggest customer!”

The experience will also serve Wade and Williams well after graduation. Their skills are directly applicable to any shop using additive manufacturing, which has exploded in popularity across the manufacturing sector and is quickly spreading to other industries.

Recognizing its increased importance, Frostburg’s Department of Physics and Engineering has integrated increasingly challenging 3D printing coursework into all four years of the engineering curriculum. The students in Wade’s class will graduate with four consecutive years of 3-D printing experience, preparing them to take the lead in a rapidly growing industry.

For more information about the Department of Biology at FSU, visit bit.ly/FrostburgBiology. For information about Physics and Engineering, visit bit.ly/FrostburgPhysics.

Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 12 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland. For more information, visit www.frostburg.edu or facebook.com/frostburgstateuniversity. Follow FSU on Twitter @frostburgstate.