Making rounds all over the news for the past couple months is a 3D-printed synthetic ear from a team at Princeton University. But, this fabricated ear isn’t simply a lifeless piece of CAD-designed silicone; the ear is made from bovine cells mixed with a liquid gel to make it a living, biological material. In addition, tiny particles of silver are added to create a coiled antenna capable of detecting radio waves that a normal ear can’t.
While the bionic ear isn’t designed to replace our own ears, it is a successful proof of concept of the combining of 3D printed living, biological materials with electronics. How did the Princeton scientists declare the prototype ear a success? When they broadcast a recording of “Fur Elise” via radio to a pair of fully formed ears, the silver particles detected the radio signals and sent them to electrodes in the back of the ear, which then transmitted the signal to a set of speakers which played Beethoven’s masterpiece crystal-clear and without interference.
Future versions of the bionic ear could help restore hearing, but its other potential applications are far more interesting. According to Michael McAlpine, Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton and the leader of the group that developed the ear, the research could lead to synthetic replacements for actual human functions, and to a sort of electronic sixth sense. “As the world becomes a more digital and electronic place, I think ultimately we’re going to care less about our traditional five senses,” he said. “And we’re going to want these new senses to give us direct electronic communication with our cellphones and our laptop devices.”
Take a look at the video from the Associated Press:
If you’re still wondering how the bionic ear works, here’s a video from Chemical and Engineering News:
Article from the Associated Press: Princeton Researchers Create ‘Bionic Ear’
More info from Princeton University: Printable ‘bionic’ ear melds electronics and biology