Like every other printer, a 3D printer requires a type of “ink” in order to run. This ink can be made of many different materials, depending on what is being created. The most prevalent material that is used to 3D print is plastic, but as the industry expands so does the variation in materials being used. Researchers have recently stepped into the field of printing glass. A glass 3D printer would bring many benefits to the industry including reduced costs, faster production, and more efficient production chambers as opposed to a glass artisan’s large oven. Institutions and companies that are testing and using glass for 3D printing, as well as developing software and machines for the design and actual printing, are eligible for research and development tax credits.

The Research & Development Tax Credit

Enacted in 1981, the federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13 percent of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:

  • New or improved products, processes, or software
  • Technological in nature
  • Elimination of uncertainty
  • Process of experimentation

Eligible costs include employee wages, cost of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses, and costs associated with developing a patent. On December 18, 2015 President Obama signed the bill making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum Tax and startup businesses can utilize the credit against $250,000 per year in payroll taxes.

Glass at MIT

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were able to create the first-ever machine that is able to print molten glass through a nozzle. Previous glass printing methods, such as sintering and jetting, caused the product to be structurally weak and opaque. The new printing system, developed by Dr. Neri Oxman of the MIT Media Lab and her team, allows glass to retain its desirable qualities of strength and transparency by utilizing heat to shape molten glass into a design. In order for glass to stay molten, it must be kept at a temperature of 1000 degrees Celsius–a challenge faced by the team. With the exception of a few, there aren’t many materials that can withstand such heat and maintain their solid form. They settled on a nozzle made of aluminum oxide, a less expensive option than traditional platinum that is used for glass manufacturing processes. They are continuing their research to incorporate colored glass as well as being able to create larger structures.

Liquid Glass

Scientists at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany were able to print small, intricate 3D objects with glass. Using a glass powder embedded into a liquid polymer, the team led by Dr. Bastian E. Rapp made a photocurable silica nanocomposite that is printed and converted to high-quality fused silica glass by a heat treatment. This method is different than existing 3D glass printing processes because it uses 3D printing technology that is already widely available to create complicated, high-precision structures. The results are non-porous structures with optical transparency. It can be colored using metal salts for commercial variation. This method of 3D printing with liquid glass widens the choice of materials for 3D printing, allowing the production to be more prevalent and to be used by a variety of industries.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

At the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California, innovation in 3D printed glass has gone even further this year. Researchers were able to create a system where high temperatures are not required during printing, allowing for higher resolution features. Prior demonstrations of 3D printed glass forms non-uniform structures that are not ideal for optical applications such as lenses for eyewear and cameras. At LLNL, researchers created a system that does not rely on high temperatures. Instead, a custom glass ink is printed at room temperature, followed by a thermal treatment to densify the parts and remove evidence of the printing process. The resulting glass is a uniformly flat and transparent structure. LLNL’s method is another step towards 3D printed glass optics.

Conclusion

Glass is one of the oldest materials humankind has worked with and manipulated for its benefit. It requires a long, labor-intensive process to produce with a glass artisan’s unique talent at its core. This process however can be reduced in both cost and time while still preserving the artisanal aspect through the use of a 3D printer. Applications of 3D printed glass include regular household items, optics, building facades, and even fiber optic cables for high-speed data transmission. The best way to determine how glass should be printed is still being researched but the possibilities of 3D printed glass are truly endless.


Charles Goulding and Rafaella July of R&D Tax Savers discuss 3D printing with glass.

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