Researchers in Germany have claimed a first with the development of a process that is able to 3D print structures made of glass.
According to the team from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), the process could open a range of fresh applications for glass in next generation computers and medical devices.
The method – which is reported in the journal Nature – uses a feedstock of nanoparticles of high-purity quartz glass and a small quantity of liquid polymer. This is cured at specific points using stereolithography.
To produce a finished component the remaining liquid is then washed out in a solvent bath, the polymer still mixed in this glass structure is removed by heating, and finally the glass is sintered so that the individual glass particles are fused together.
According to the group, the technique represents a major advance on previous efforts to process glass into structures. “We present a new method, an innovation in materials processing, in which the material of the piece manufactured is high-purity quartz glass with the respective chemical and physical properties,” said the project’s leader Dr Bastian E Rapp. Rapp added that the glass structures made using the new process show resolutions in the range of a few micrometres.
Thanks to its transparency, thermal stability and resistance to acids, glass is increasingly widely used for a variety of industrial applications. According to the team, the ability to 3D print the material could open up new applications in areas such as optics, data transmission, and biotechnology.
“The next plus one generation of computers will use light, which requires complicated processor structures; 3D-technology could be used, for instance, to make small, complex structures out of a large number of very small optical components of different orientations,” explained Rapp.
Other potential applications identified by the group include the manufacture of miniaturised glass tubes for medical analytical systems and a variety of 3D-shaped optical components for use in everything from eyeglasses to lenses in laptop cameras.