MIT researchers have created a 3D printer for molten glass


Think of G3DP as the next generation of glassblowing. 


Remember the days when 3D printers were only capable of using plastic filament? Well, the times have changed. Chocolate, ceramics, metal, living tissue — these are just some of the materials now being spit out to make an assortment of things, from the practical to the absurd. Next on that ever-growing list? Glass, thanks to a team of researchers at MIT’s Mediated Matter Group.

3DP

That’s because the group has developed an unbelievable 3D printer that can print glass objects. The device, called the G3DPconsists of two heated chambers. The upper chamber is a crucible kiln that operates at a temperature of around 1900°F, and funnels the molten material through an alumina-zircon-silica nozzle, while the bottom chamber works to anneal the structures.

The machine doesn’t create glass from scratch, but instead works with the preexisting substance, layering and building out beautifully-constructed geometric shapes according to designs drawn up in a 3D CAD program. This printing method shares many of the same principles as fused deposition modeling (FDM), which is commonly employed by most 3D printers today. Except that it can operate at much higher temps and uses molten glass as the medium, opposed to plastic filament.

How does it all work, you ask? The glass is first melted at an extremely high temperature over a period of roughly four hours. For another two hours, it undergoes a fining process, in which helium may be introduced to the molten material to enlarge and carry small bubbles to the surface, eliminating them. During this stage, the extruder has to be kept cool so that the glass doesn’t begin flowing. Once fining is complete, the crucible and nozzle are set to temperatures of 1904°F  and 1850°F, respectively, and the extrusion process begins. The G3DP is controlled by three independent stepper motors, as well as the combination of an Arduino (assuming based on an ATmega2560) and RAMPS 1.4 shield.

Glass

At this time, the researchers have used G3DP to craft things like vases, prisms, and other small decorations, some of which will be on display at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum next year.

“Two trends in additive manufacturing highlight the value we expect from additive manufacturing of molten glass. First, the freedom that this process provides in terms of the forms that can be created in glass,” its creators explain. “Second, bespoke creation of glass objects provides the opportunity for complex scaffolds, fluidics and labware custom made for individual applications. Moving forward, the simultaneous development of the printer and the design of the printed glass objects will yield both a higher performance system and increasingly complex novel objects.”

As impressive as this may sound, it’s even more mesmerizing to watch it in action. It will surely be interesting to see how the G3DP will influence art, architecture and product design in the future. Intrigued? You can read the team’s entire paper here.

[Images: MIT’s Mediated Matter Group]

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