3-D printing has taken off over the past several years as printers improve and prices drop. Printing 3-D print objects made of pure glass is now possible thanks to a new method developed by a team of researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany.
The team described their technique and the applications for the new approach in their paper published in the journal Nature. In the same edition, Physical, Chemical and Earth Sciences editor for the publication, Karl Ziemelis, wrote a News & Views piece on the work done by the researchers.
3-D printed objects have become common across the world, and they can be found in research institutes to hobbyist’s workshops. Despite their popularity, 3-D printers have had one weakness – they are not able to print glass objects. Modern 3-D printers can print objects made of ceramics, plastics and metal, but not glass. The researchers find this a pity, as objects made from glass offer many advantages such as resistance to chemical and thermal damage, and the fact that they are transparent. It appears however that this has changed, as the German team has found a way to print glass objects with normal 3-D printers.
The new technique enables 3-D printing of glass objects by means of a “liquid glass” the team created. This consists of a glass nanocomposite with glass nanoparticles suspended in a prepolymer that is photocurable. The sandy glass nanoparticles are mixed into the liquid solution and this blend is then used as the “ink” for the printer. Once the glass object has been printed in the normal way, it is put in an oven that burns off other unnecessary materials and cures the glass. The result is an object made of clear, pure glass.
The researchers note that as with other 3-D printed objects, the precision and size of the objects printed are determined by the precision of the printer used. To exhibit their new technique, the team printed a honeycomb, a tiny castle and tiny pretzels. They believe the new method could be used to produce both very small and large glass objects, from tiny camera lenses to skyscraper facades. The team also noted that it is entirely likely that most people will own a 3-D printer one day and, as a result, may elect to produce their own glass objects such as ornate windows, or fine glassware.