Bionic Ear
Princeton researchers were able to create a "bionic ear" using a 3-D printer. Frank Wojciechowski

Princeton University researchers are harnessing the power of a 3-D printer to create a “bionic ear.” The creation of an ear using a combination of silicone and collected bovine tissue via a 3-D printer is just the latest advancement in the field of cybernetics.

The Associated Press toured the research lab at Princeton where the 3-D ear was created. The bionic ear is not meant to replace an actual ear but serve as an aid or enhancement tool. Michael McAlpine describes the role of cybernetics, which combines biological material with synthetic ones, as a transitional tool that will allow humans to more seamlessly interact with their gadgets and help people go beyond their five senses. “We’re going to want these new senses to give us direct electronic communication with our cellphones and our laptop devices,” McAlpine told AP.

The bionic ear created by McAlpine and his team combines bovine tissue, silicone and a silver coil that acts as an antenna. The bionic ear is printed using a 3-D printer and is left to cultivate for 10 weeks. The cultivation process lets the bovine tissue cells grow and multiply, AP notes. The bionic ear is able to pick up radio signals and transmit them, mimicking the function of a human ear. The researchers demonstrated the bionic ear’s capabilities to AP by transmitting a recording of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” to a set of speakers using electrodes in the ear that were embedded during the printing process.

The research helps solve a problem facing previous research trying to combine electronic components and biological material. McAlpine believes a readily available 3-D printer could help solve those problems, saying in a statement, “Previously, researchers have suggested some strategies to tailor the electronics so that this merger is less awkward. That typically happens between a 2-D sheet of electronics and a surface of the tissue. However, our work suggests a new approach: to build and grow the biology up with the electronics synergistically and in a 3-D interwoven format.”

A 3-D printer eliminates the need to cultivate tissue cells on a scaffold as the printing method allows for the creation of biological structures, such as an ear, whereas the scaffolding method cannot replicate the complex shapes. This new process could create bionic biological structures that could be an improvement to the replaced structure. Manu Mannoor, a graduate student who was the lead author on the bionic ear study, said, in the future, a torn knee meniscus could be replaced with a bionic meniscus that has sensors that can monitor stress and impact.

McAlpine and his team have had previous success merging technology and biology with the creation of a “tooth tattoo,” using a sensor, created from silk and gold that’s combined with graphene and an antenna. The tooth tattoo can be attached to a tooth’s enamel and could be used to detect harmful bacteria leading to healthier teeth.

There is plenty of testing and research before bionic structures would be publicly available, but the research could lead to new advancements as 3-D printing was shown to be a viable tool in the creation of a bionic ear. A video of the bionic ear in action can be viewed below.