Monday, June 24, 2024

The First Chip-Based 3D Printer

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MIT and the University of Texas have developed a prototype for a chip-based 3D printer that uses a tiny photonic chip to cure resin into solid shapes.

The tiny device could enable a user to rapidly create customized, low-cost objects on the go, like a fastener to repair a wobbly bicycle wheel or a component for a critical medical operation.
Credits:Credit: Sampson Wilcox, RLE
The tiny device could enable a user to rapidly create customized, low-cost objects on the go, like a fastener to repair a wobbly bicycle wheel or a component for a critical medical operation.
Credits:Credit: Sampson Wilcox, RLE

Envision a 3D printer so small it fits in the palm of your hand. This compact device would allow users to quickly produce customised, affordable items wherever they are, such as a fastener to fix a shaky bicycle wheel or a vital part of a medical procedure.

Researchers from MIT and the University of Texas at Austin have created a chip-based 3D printer prototype that uses a millimetre-scale photonic chip to emit light into resin, solidifying it into shapes. This chip directs light precisely with optical antennas, quickly crafting complex patterns like “M-I-T.” The team envisions future advancements where the chip could instantly cure entire objects with a 3D hologram. 

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Printing with a chip

The prototype developed by the researchers features a photonic chip equipped with an array of optical antennas, each 160 nanometers thick—much thinner than a sheet of paper, which is about 100,000 nanometers thick. This chip is small enough to fit on a U quarter. Powered by an external laser, the antennas on the chip emit a beam of visible light that can be steered into a well of photocurable resin. Positioned below a clear microscope slide with a shallow indentation to hold the resin, the chip uses electrical signals to non-mechanically direct the light beam, causing the resin to solidify at the points of contact with the light.

A collaborative approach

Modulating visible-wavelength light for chip applications, which typically requires inefficient and space-consuming heating, has been innovated by researchers using compact, efficient liquid crystal modulators integrated directly onto the chip. These modulators, about 20 microns in size, utilise an electric field to control light’s amplitude and phase precisely. Meanwhile, a collaboration between the Page Group at UT Austin and the Notaros Group at MIT led to developing a novel photocurable resin with enhanced shelf-life and rapid curing capabilities. This advancement allowed the prototype to efficiently 3D print complex two-dimensional shapes, showcasing the potential of this new technology.

The researchers now plan to advance towards their initial concept—a chip that emits a hologram of visible light into a resin well, enabling efficient, one-step volumetric 3D printing.

Nidhi Agarwal
Nidhi Agarwal
Nidhi Agarwal is a journalist at EFY. She is an Electronics and Communication Engineer with over five years of academic experience. Her expertise lies in working with development boards and IoT cloud. She enjoys writing as it enables her to share her knowledge and insights related to electronics, with like-minded techies.

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