From pirate plunder to bug-killing wonder: silver and copper in antimicrobial 3D printing

When Blackbeard and co were pillaging for silver, copper and other desirable treasures, little did they know their precious hauls could one day combat the spread of infectious diseases.

While scurvy is no longer the scourge of the seven seas that it once was,1 infectious diseases are as much of a challenge to prevent and treat as ever. Even before COVID-19 crashed into all our lives, infectious disease experts were fighting the immense challenge of hospital-acquired infections. In 2016/17, there were over 650,000 infections among the 13.8 million adult inpatients in NHS general and teaching hospitals in England; 22,800 patients died as a result of their infection.2

While antibiotics are the mainstay of treatment for hospital-acquired infections, their use can encourage the spread of drug-resistant ‘superbugs’ such as C.difficile and MRSA.2,3 So, is there another way to halt the spread of these menacing microorganisms?

Hi ho, silver lining

Long John Silver is a famous fictional pirate from the classic novel Treasure Island. But it’s his chemical element namesake that is currently making waves in medical device research.

Potential pathogens can lurk on surfaces that patients frequently come into contact with, such as hospital beds, taps and door handles. But what if there was a way to give those surfaces an antimicrobial coating? Researchers at the University of Sheffield have found a way, with the help of silver compounds.3

The interdisciplinary group has successfully mixed an antibacterial silver compound into existing 3D printing materials without compromising on mechanical properties. From here, they’ve created 3D-printed components that can repel the most common groups of bacterial organisms. Better yet, biofilms – a slimy coating that can grow on medical devices and spread deadly infection – did not form during tests on these 3D-printed materials.3 Though research is ongoing, the possibilities for this material are as endless as a Pirates of the Caribbean marathon.

Fighting COVID with copper

Often found in your purse just before pay day, copper is another multi-talented antimicrobial metal. Copper’s microbe-busting properties aren’t a new discovery. The first recorded medical use of copper is found in the Edwin Smith Papyrus, one of the oldest books known. Centuries before Sir Francis Drake was stalking the Pacific, ancient Egyptians were using copper to sterilise chest wounds and drinking water.4

Now the natural properties of copper are being harnessed in innovative new ways, through the power of 3D‑printing technology. Chilean/US-based company Copper 3D has created a portfolio of copper-based nanocomposites that can be used to create medical-grade 3D-printed products. When put to the test, these materials eliminated more than 99.99% of fungi, viruses, bacteria and a wide range of microorganisms.5

Though Copper 3D developed the technology with medical prosthetics in mind, they have since redirected their efforts to tackling the COVID crisis. Through open-source collaborations with other experts, they’ve developed a range of nano copper-based innovations from mechanical ventilator parts to surgical masks. By partnering with global organisations, their goal is to get these products into the hands of those that need them most.5

Ancient properties, new possibilities

As the astonishing vaccine development efforts have shown us, the most radical innovations are born from crises. Much like how the pirates of yesteryear were able to use their ingenuity to escape poverty, we can harness 3D‑printing technology to solve the challenge of infectious diseases once and for all. All we need are the tools, the know-how and a little pirate treasure.


  1. National Geographic. A nightmare disease haunted ships during age of discovery. Available at: Accessed: January 2021.
  2. Guest JF et al. BMJ open. 2020;10:e033367.
  3. 3D Printing Media Network. 3D printed antibacterial parts could reduce spread of infections in hospitals. Available at: Accessed: January 2021.
  4. Copper Development Association Inc. Medical uses of copper in antiquity. Available at: Accessed: January 2021.
  5. Copper 3D. Available at: Accessed: January 2021.