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Chip-based 3D Printer Fits in Palm of the Hand

The proof-of-concept device cures resin into solid arbitrary shapes in seconds without the use of any moving parts.

Norbert Sparrow

June 10, 2024

2 Min Read
chip-based 3D printer
MIT/Sampson Wilcox, RLE

Every once in a while, a technology comes along that seems like it’s been beamed down from the land of holodecks and dilithium crystals. A 3D printer that fits in the palm of your hand and produces solid shapes from a resin via steerable rays of light falls into that category for me.

Researchers from MIT and the University of Texas at Austin have developed a proof-of-concept chip-based 3D printer that is about the size of a quarter. It could rapidly print custom, low-cost medical components or, more prosaically, a fastener to repair a wobbly bicycle wheel on the go. A paper describing the research was published in Nature Light Science and Applications on June 6, 2024.

How it works.

The device consists of a millimeter-scale photonic chip that projects a beam of light through tiny optical antennas into a well of liquid resin that rapidly cures when exposed to the beam’s wavelength of visible light. Arbitrary two-dimensional patterns are then printed within seconds and without the use of any moving parts, according to an article by Adam Zewe in MIT News. The breakthrough was achieved by an interdisciplinary research team with expertise in silicon photonics and photochemistry.

Jelena Notaros, the Robert J. Shillman Career Development Professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at MIT and senior author of the paper, along with her team, had previously developed integrated optical-phased-array systems that steer beams of light using microscale antennas fabricated on a chip using semiconductor manufacturing processes. This technology is used in lidar-based remote sensing systems in autonomous vehicles, for example.

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As they considered other applications — one of which was a chip-based 3D printer — the Page Group at UT Austin had developed for the first time resins that could be rapidly cured by visible light. This was the missing piece that made chip-based 3D printing a reality, writes Zewe.

Merging technologies.

“With photocurable resins, it is very hard to get them to cure all the way up at infrared wavelengths, which is where integrated optical-phased-array systems were operating in the past for lidar,” said Sabrina Corsetti, lead author and EECS graduate student. “Here, we are meeting in the middle between standard photochemistry and silicon photonics by using visible-light-curable resins and visible-light-emitting chips to create this chip-based 3D printer. You have this merging of two technologies into a completely new idea.”

Ultimately, the researchers envision a photonics chip sitting at the bottom of a well of resin and emitting a 3D hologram of visible light, rapidly curing an entire object in a single step, writes Zewe.

“This system is completely rethinking what a 3D printer is," Notaros told Zewe. “It is no longer a big box sitting on a bench in a lab creating objects, but something that is handheld and portable. It is exciting to think about the new applications that could come out of this and how the field of 3D printing could change,” said Notaros.

About the Author(s)

Norbert Sparrow

Editor in chief of PlasticsToday since 2015, Norbert Sparrow has more than 30 years of editorial experience in business-to-business media. He studied journalism at the Centre Universitaire d'Etudes du Journalisme in Strasbourg, France, where he earned a master's degree.

www.linkedin.com/in/norbertsparrow

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