Researchers Use Commercial SLA 3D Printer to 3D Print High-Resolution Glass Objects

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Is 3D printed glass going to be the next big thing? While it’s not likely to replace, say, metal 3D printing in terms of leading the 3D printing industry, it’s certainly becoming more prevalent than it used to be. Last month, Micron3DP announced the upcoming beta release of their groundbreaking glass 3D printer, the first machine to be able to 3D print glass using FDM technology. Now a group of German researchers have announced that they’ve successfully 3D printed strong, transparent, high-resolution glass objects using stereolithography, microstereolithography and microlithography.

The research team, led by the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, used a material composed of glass powder suspended in a polymer resin to 3D print several tiny objects including a honeycomb structure, a castle, and, naturally, a pretzel. Once the objects were 3D printed, they were placed in an oven where the polymer was burned away, leaving pure glass. What makes this such a big breakthrough is that unlike other methods of glass 3D printing, a special 3D printer wasn’t required – the researchers used an off-the shelf SLA 3D printer, namely an Asiga PICO2.

“Overcuring along the z-axis could be prevented by using the absorber Sudan Orange G,” the researchers explain. “For micro(stereo-)lithography we used a custom-built microlithography system based on a digital mirror device…The system was complemented by a z-axis.”

The research was published in an article entitled “Three-dimensional printing of transparent fused silica glass,” which you can access here. Before you get too excited, this doesn’t mean that everyone is suddenly going to have a glass 3D printer in their house (we’re still waiting on that prediction that everyone will have a plastic 3D printer in their house, in fact) – although the actual 3D printing technique could potentially be replicated on any number of consumer-level SLA 3D printers, the process requires a high-temperature industrial oven to fully melt away the polymer.

The implications are still huge, though. According to study author Bastian Rapp, anything from tiny objects such as lenses to large objects such as windows can be produced with the technique – it only depends on the size of the 3D printer. 3D printing with this method, especially the tiny objects, has several advantages over traditional glass fabrication techniques: it’s faster, it doesn’t require dangerous chemical etching, which typically involves hydrofluoric acid, and it can create closed cavities and channels that can’t be produced by other means. Metal salts could also be added to produce colored glass.

“Printing the nanocomposites yields glass feature resolutions and structure quality fully compatible with the demands of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), microoptical and microfluidic applications…A custom-built micro(stereo-)lithography system based on a digital mirror device was used to shape fused silica glass at a resolution of a few tens of micrometres, having sharp edges that cannot be achieved with classical glass-structuring techniques,” the researchers state.

We could begin seeing actual real-world applications of the technology very soon; Rapp has created a company to commercialize the technology and hopes to have it on the market this year.

“Glass is one of the oldest materials that mankind has used, and it’s astonishing to see the 3D printing revolution of the 21st century has ignored glass until now,” says Rapp. “There is almost no material that can be exposed to such high temperatures as glass can be exposed to. And there is almost no chemical that can attack glass, whereas polymers can be degraded by UV light and organic solvents.”

Additional authors on the study include Frederik Kotz, Karl Arnold, Werner Bauer, Dieter Schild, Nico Keller, Kai Sachsenheimer, Tobias M. Nargang, Christiane Richter, and Dorothea Helmer. Discuss in the 3D Printed Glass forum at 3DPB.com.

[Source: Smithsonian/Images: Karlsruhe Institute of Technology]

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