3D Printed Syringe Pumps Are Perfect for Cash-Strapped Scientists

The open source design costs less than $100 for one pump. A commercial version can run $5000.

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Sep 17 2014, 8:35pm

Image: PLOS One

Lab equipment is expensive. Syringe pumps alone, used for delivering drug doses and chemicals, can cost thousands of dollars. It explains the push we're seeing to make the tools of science inexpensive and readily available, and why a group of researchers from Michigan Technological University have released a library of open-source syringe pump designs that can be 3D printed, making research that much cheaper for cash-strapped scientists.

According to a paper describing their approach, published today in PLOS One, the core of the design is an inexpensive Raspberry Pi which is wired to a single stepper motor controller and accompanying motor, all controlled by a local web server. The papers explains how their open source design ends up costing less than $100 for one pump, whereas commercial versions can cost up to $5000. 

The syringe pumps can also be customized and scaled to meet a specific need in the lab, a benefit of 3D printing the materials needed.

Two of the team's 3D printed pumps hooked up to motors and a Raspberry Pi. Image:  PLOS One

"Not only have we designed a single syringe pump, we've designed all future syringe pumps," Joshua Pearce, the project's lead researcher, said in a university statement provided to Phys.Org. "Scientists can customize the design of a pump for exactly what they are doing, just by changing a couple of numbers in the software."

What's more, the things actually work. When the researchers tested their syringes for the amount of force and liquid they could deliver. According to their results, the syringes were able to produce a maximum of 200 newtons worth of force and 2.4 milliliters of fluid per second, a performance that the researchers dubbed "admirable."

Pearce and his team at Michigan Tech have been on a mission to make labs as low-cost and open source as possible for several years. Last year, the team published "Open Source Lab," a step-by-step guide for scientists to design and print most of their tools on the cheap. According to Pearce, the ability to control the equipment in a lab allows scientists to act independently of vendors, sponsors, and make their work environment more adaptive to their needs.

Syringe pumps are yet another addition to the ever-increasing roster of open source and 3D printable tools. It really does seem that finally, after all the hype, 3D printing is actually printing things we can actually use.