We've seen a growing number 3D printers that use additive manufacturing technology to form objects one layer at a time, usually from resin or ABS plastic. But Markus Kayser, an MA student at the Royal College of Art in London, has created a 3D printer that creates 3D objects using two things found in abundance in the desert - sun and sand. As well as being powered by the sun via two photovoltaic panels, the Solar-Sinter also focuses the sun's rays to heat sand to its melting point so it then solidifies as glass when it cools, allowing the computer controlled device to produce glass objects from 3D computer designs.
Kayser's inspiration for the Solar-Sinter grew out a previous solar-powered machine he created called the Sun-Cutter. This device was a low-energy version of a laser cutter that was also powered by the sun and focused the sun's rays through a glass ball lens to 'laser' cut 2D components from 0.4 mm thick plywood, paper or card using a cam-guided system. Kayser says the experience of testing the Sun-Cutter in the Egyptian desert led to the idea of the Solar-Sinter.
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Whereas many traditional 3D printers use lasers to melt and soften materials, such as resin or plastic powder, until the particles adhere to each other in a process known as sintering, Kayser realized he could use the sun's rays in place of a laser and silica sand in place of resin or plastic powder to create 3D glass objects.
Kayser first tested a manually-operated solar-sintering machine in the Moroccan desert in February, 2011, and, encouraged by the results, developed a larger and fully-automated computer driven version that he took to the Sahara Desert near Siwa, Egypt for a two week testing period in May.
That device consists of a large Fresnel lens that focuses the sun's rays to a focal point onto a platform holding the silica sand. Two photovoltaic panels power a sun tracker that keeps the focal point on target. When one layer is completed, the platform drops down to allow for the sintering of the next layer, and so on until the object is completed.
Kayser says the results of those first experiments, which can be seen in the video below, "represent the initial significant steps towards what I envisage as a new solar-powered production tool of great potential."