Scientific models can be expensive and hard to come by - especially finding models for your students’ precise learning goals. The following guide explains how you or your students can find and 3D print models to help them learn.
For ease of use, this guide will be broken into two sections:
- Chemical models
- Biological models
Because there are many well-known general repositories of 3D printable model files, such as Thingiverse and GrabCAD, this guide will focus on the sources that will provide you with more precise scientific models.
Protein Data Bank
The Protein Data Bank has three-dimensional shapes of proteins, nucleic acids and complex assemblies that help students and researchers understand all aspects of biomedicine and agriculture, from protein synthesis to health and disease. When you download files from the Protein Data Bank, they are in a .cif file format. To convert the .cif files into an .stl file for 3D printing, you can use a program from The University of San Francisco called Chimera.
Chimera is a highly extensible program for interactive visualization and analysis of molecular structures and related data. A feature of Chimera allows .cif files to be exported as multiple 3D print file types.
Crystallography Open Database
The Crystallography Open Database is an open-access collection of crystal structures of organic, inorganic, metal-organic compounds and minerals, excluding biopolymers. As of May 2016, there were over 360,000 files available for download. You need to use Chimera to convert the .cif files into .stl files for 3D printing.
BodyParts3D is a complete source of 3D digital human anatomy. Currently there are almost 3,000 carefully rendered, high-definition anatomical models that are made freely available under a Creative Commons license! The website automatically loads in Japanese, but you can use your browser’s translation services to view the page in English.
NIH Print Exchange
The NIH 3D Print Exchange provides models in formats that are readily compatible with 3D printers, and it also offers a unique set of tools to create and share 3D printable models related to biomedical science. In the NIH 3D Print Exchange, you can find medical/anatomical models, custom lab ware, small molecules, proteins, macromolecules, bacteria, cells, tissues and other organisms. They are all available as free .stl or .x3d file downloads.
The NIH 3D Print Exchange is also changing the face of chemistry education by allowing educators to have access to hundreds of thousands of chemical models. These models can allow even the most complex of structures to be better understood by students because they can experience them tangibly.
The NIH 3D Print Exchange has partnered with the Electron Microscopy Data Bank, the Protein Data Bank and PubChem to create the largest one-stop shop for scientific 3D models.
To get started on the NIH 3D Print Exchange you will need to create a free account. Once completed, sign back into NIH with your credentials.
Now choose the “create” tab on the top menu bar.
Under the Quick Submit box, you can select the tab to take you to one of the three repositories: EMDB, PDB or PubChem.
Once you have found the compound that you want to 3D print, go back to the “create” tab on the NIH 3D Print Exchange, and put in the compound’s ID number found on the repository. Make sure that you select the correct repository that you got the compound from.
After you submit the chemical model that you want, the NIH 3D Print Exchange will create the 3D model and send it to the email that you listed when you created your account.
Your chemical model is now ready for download and 3D printing.
Being able to see, hold and manipulate 3D printed scientific models is helpful to students who may not be able to “visualize” these detailed structures without assistance. We’re very excited that such expansive resources such as the NIH 3D Print Exchange are open to all!
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