The concept of 3D printing glass objects traces back to circa September 2009, when a team of engineers and artists at the University of Washington’s Solheim Rapid Manufacturing Laboratory took inspiration from the ancient Egyptian glass casting method of “pate de verre”, where finely crushed glass is mixed with a binding material like gum arabic and water, usually with colourants and enamels, and applied to the inner surface of a negative mould to form a coating mould that is subsequently fired and the glass mixture fused.
They developed a technique to make glass objects from powdered glass using computer-aided design and a 3D printer. Usually in powder-based 3D printing, thin layers of fine powder are progressively spread over a surface while a software-controlled inkjet printer deposits droplets of a binder solution, which is absorbed by the material as the next layer of powder is being spread until the object is formed.
In 2015, then start-up Micron3DP of Israel demonstrated its ability to 3D print glass objects at temperatures of up to 1640°C. Micron3DP’s 3D printing technology is a significantly hotter version of fused filament fabrication (FFF), capable of printing both soda lime glass and borosilicate glass objects.
In August 2015, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Mediated Matter group and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Glass Lab collaborated to experiment with 3D printing glass objects in a project codenamed G3DP. The printer uses a kiln into which glass is placed and heated to a temperature of circa 1000°C. The melted glass passes through a nozzle that extrudes it to cool and solidify.
Project G3DP2 explored 3D printing glass objects at architectural dimensions with a new and much larger-scale 3D printer. The capabilities of the second experimental 3D printer were demonstrated in an installation known as “Glass II” at the Milan Design Week of 2017, comprising several three-meter-tall 3D printed glass columns.
Not all glass 3D printers resemble fused filament fabrication machines. In April 2017, researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology of Germany 3D printed glass objects using a Stereolithography process, using a material composed of glass powder suspended in a polymer resin. The researchers used an Asiga PICO2 over building a printer especially for the project.
In May 2017, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) developed a method for 3D printing glass objects using direct ink writing. Unlike FFF, 3D printing in glass that needs temperatures of at least 1000°C, the glass could be 3D printed at room temperature, using an ink formulated from concentrated suspensions of silica particles. This method was used specifically to create glass for optical applications like lasers. The specialized method developed by LLNL also created lenses with a clarity not found in other forms of 3D printed glass, due to a special thermal treatment and polish.
The applications of 3D printed glass are range from art and architecture to optics and microfluidics. 3D printing will most likely not supersede other methods of glass manufacture, but it will achieve some things that traditional manufacturing can’t do. It is truly remarked that 3D printing in glass has evolved so significantly in the last few years.
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