Why printing glass is a real breakthrough

The list of materials that can be used on a 3D printer has been growing. The newest addition: Glass. While most of the materials have been breakthroughs in and of themselves, glass has the potential to take 3D printing to another level.

The list of materials that can be used on a 3D printer has been growing. From plastic to wood to ceramics to metal to gel with living cells. The newest addition: Glass. While most of the materials have been breakthroughs in and of themselves, glass has the potential to take 3D printing to another level. Why? Glass is a critical component in many structures so that the ability to print glass opens up a whole new field of applications for 3D printing.

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Prof. Neri Oxman and her team at the Mediated Matter Group at the MIT Media Lab recently unveiled the G3DP, a 3D printer that heats glass to more than 1900 Fahrenheit until it has a gel-like consistency. The gel is then extruded through an aluminum nozzle and hardens as it cools.

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While the first 3D printed products that come to mind may be vases, lamps and other decorative items, the research team has a more ambitious agenda even though the nozzle extrudes a filament 10mm in diameter and the machine can’t make anything bigger than about 10 inches long and 11 inches high at the moment.

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Still, and despite the size limitation, once the concept has been proven to work, much more is possible once additional research has been done and current challenges such as temperature control have been solved. One area that the researchers are especially interested in is architecture. They envision 3D printed all-glass buildings with integrated pipes and channels. The glass façade could house several functions such as customized LED-light effects, glass channels to transmit water and solar panels that are built right into it.

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The researchers also see glass printing as promising for the aerospace industry that has already started to embrace 3D printing and is testing materials and processes. The ability to print fiber optics is another area on which future research will focus. A combination of several applications, of course, is interesting as well: “Now consider printable optoelectronics, or the possibility of combining optical fibers for high-speed data transmission by light, combined within glass printed building facades”, said Oxman in an interview with the Washington Post.

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The G3DP project was created in collaboration between the Mediated Matter group at the MIT Media Lab, the Mechanical Engineering Department, the MIT Glass Lab and the Wyss Institute. Researchers include : John Klein, Michael Stern, Markus Kayser, Chikara Inamura, Giorgia Franchin, Shreya Dave, James Weaver, Peter Houk and Prof. Neri Oxman.

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