Researchers debut chip-based 3D printer

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Researchers from MIT and the University of Texas at Austin have unveiled what they claim as the world’s first chip-based 3D printer, enabling a new era of portable, rapid, and customised object creation.

The prototype device, a collaboration between interdisciplinary teams, boasts a minuscule form factor, fitting onto a single millimetre-scale photonic chip.

Unlike conventional 3D printers, this innovative technology requires no moving parts, relying instead on microscopic optical antennas to emit and steer reconfigurable beams of light into a reservoir of photocurable resin, MIT said in a news release.

This resin, specifically engineered to solidify rapidly upon exposure to the chip’s emitted wavelength of visible light, enables the formation of intricate shapes and structures within seconds.

The chip can maneuver light beams to 3D print arbitrary two-dimensional patterns with precision, exemplified by the creation of the iconic letters M-I-T during the demonstration.

Sabrina Corsetti, lead author of the research paper and graduate student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at MIT, noted the transformative nature of this innovation: “This system is completely rethinking what a 3D printer is. It is no longer a big box sitting on a bench in a lab creating objects, but something that is handheld and portable.”

Leveraging advancements in integrated optical-phased-array systems, pioneered by the Notaros group at MIT, and novel photocurable resins developed by the Page Group at UT Austin, the researchers achieved a symbiotic integration of two disparate technologies.

Jelena Notaros, senior author of the paper and Robert J Shillman Career Development Professor in EECS at MIT, emphasize the significance of this milestone: “It is exciting to think about the new applications that could come out of this and how the field of 3D printing could change.”

Various entities, including the U.S. National Science Foundation, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Robert A. Welch Foundation provided funding for this research.

The findings of this research were published in Nature Light Science and Applications.