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More than thirty years ago, Charles Hull successfully created the first 3-D printer. Known as “rapid prototyping,” Hull’s machine increased prototype production from 6-8 weeks to a matter of hours. Since then, researchers have gone on to print full-scale automobile prototype models, prosthetic limbs and even human organs. Recently, researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany made another development—printing 3-D objects of pure glass using standard 3-D printers.
3-D Printing More Accessible to Public
When first developed, rapid prototyping was most commonly used in the automobile and aircraft industries. The process is very similar to a standard printer in that you print from a computer-generated file. Introduction of desktop-size 3-D printers brought the technology into the hands of the average individual. The more widely used 3-D printers of today are for smaller scale projects. They aren’t quite as accurate as their large scale counterparts and are best for low quantity production. Also, material choices are typically limited to nylon or plastic and sometimes ceramic or metal. Maintenance and printing costs on 3-D printers is significantly cheaper than industrial-size rapid prototypers.
Printing Pure Glass on a Standard 3-D Printer
Because glass is more resistant to thermal or chemical damage as well as its transparency, the ability to print pure glass opens new doors within the industry. Researchers stated that they envision this breakthrough to allow individuals to print anything from fine glassware to skyscraper facades. However, the quality of the 3-D printer ultimately determines the quality of output no matter what material is used.
By mixing “high-purity quartz glass nanoparticles” with a liquid solution, researchers developed a so-called ink mixture with which to print. The output must be cured in a high-temperature oven to harden, causing the glass particles to fuse. The final product is clear glass. Previously, printed glass objects were either unstable or cloudy in their final state.
While similar work was done by MIT researchers nearly two years ago, it has yet to be made available to consumers. The major hurdle in the past to printing glass was the extremely high heat necessary to produce a stable product. MIT’s approach was to modify the 3-D printer itself to be able to print at a much higher temperature than standard 3-D printers.
Want to read more on glass production? Check out this article on the different types of ballistic security glass.