A team of engineers and artists has developed a way to create glass objects using a conventional 3-D printer. The technique allows a new type of material to be used in such devices.
“It became clear that if we could get a material into powder form at about 20 microns we could print just about anything,” says Mark Ganter, a University of Washington professor of mechanical engineering and codirector of the Solheim Lab. (Twenty microns is less than one thousandth of an inch.)
Three-dimensional printers are used as a cheap, fast way to build prototype parts. In a typical powder-based 3-D printing system, a thin layer of powder is spread over a platform and software directs an inkjet printer to deposit droplets of binder solution only where needed. The binder reacts with the powder to bind the particles together and create a 3-D object.
Glass powder doesn’t readily absorb liquid, however, so the approach used with ceramic printing had to be radically altered.
“Using our normal process to print objects produced gelatin-like parts when we used glass powders,” says mechanical engineering graduate student Grant Marchelli, who led the experimentation. “We had to reformulate our approach for both powder and binder.”
By adjusting the ratio of powder to liquid the team found a way to build solid parts out of powdered glass. Their successful formulation held together and fused when heated to the required temperature.