The 3D-printing of glass objects has been achieved before – we've seen it done by extruding molten glass, and even via a modern take on an ancient Egyptian technique. A new process developed at Germany's Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, however, is claimed to produce complex glass items of a higher quality than has ever previously been possible.
Created by a team led by mechanical engineer Dr. Bastian E. Rapp, the process starts with a solution made up of a light-sensitive liquid polymer and nanoparticles of high-purity quartz glass.
Using a technique known as stereolithography, an ultraviolet laser is focused onto that solution at various points, causing it to cure and harden at those locations. In that way, the object is progressively built up from the solution, a layer at a time.
A solvent bath is subsequently used to wash away any leftover uncured solution, leaving a rough version of the desired structure behind – it's still rather porous and unstable. That structure is then heated at a high temperature, however, causing the glass nanoparticles to melt and fuse together. The end result is a smooth, solid object ranging in size from a few micrometers up to several centimeters.
It has been suggested that the technology could find use in fields such as optics, data transmission, and biotechnology. A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Nature.