How can 3D printing be utilized to better understand chemistry? The concept of creating molecular models to serve as instructional aids has certainly been around a long time. Students of organic chemistry are often encouraged to purchase molecular modeling kits that can be used to build geometric renderings of various chemical structures. However, traditional ball-and-stick kits are limited with regard to how accurately the components can be pieced together to depict the true geometric form of a molecule. Perhaps there is a better way.
Low-cost 3D printing represents a powerful new tool that can be used by science educators and their students to create realistic, tangible models of chemical structures. 3D-printed molecular models are capable of doing far more than illustrate the atoms and bonds that make up a molecule. The models can often depict subtleties about the chemical structure that are difficult to discern using traditional modeling kits. 3D-printed models can even inform us about chemical reaction pathways—illustrating, for example, how different chemical entities fit together and interact in a three-dimensional fashion.
Students in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Stetson University, in collaboration with chemistry faculty mentors, have made use of a combination of software tools, web-resources, and 3D printing to create several different types of chemical models. Simple ball-and-stick models of common chemical structures have been constructed. More realistic, space-filling models of organic compounds, crystal structures, proteins, and other molecular complexes have also been fabricated. Originally, 3D-printed molecular models were created by students as part of independent study and senior research experiences. More recently, instructors have incorporated 3D printing activities as part of the required chemistry curriculum. 3D printing activities of this type can often make difficult to learn chemistry concepts more accessible to students and can greatly enhanced enthusiasm and motivation for learning abstract material.