UC Berkeley researchers have discovered a new light-based 3D printing technique that has the potential to transform how products from prosthetics to eyeglass lenses are designed and manufactured. Using light, the 3D printer transforms liquids into complex solid objects in only a matter of minutes. Nicknamed the “replicator” by the inventors — after the Star Trek device that can materialize any object on demand — the 3D printer can create objects that are smoother, more flexible and more complex than what is possible with traditional 3D printers. It can also encase an already existing object with new materials — for instance, adding a handle to a metal screwdriver shaft — which current printers struggle to do.
Most 3D printers, including other light-based techniques, build up 3D objects layer by layer. This leads to a “stair-step” effect along the edges. They also have difficulties creating flexible objects because bendable materials could deform during the printing process, and supports are required to print objects of certain shapes, like arches. The new printer relies on a viscous liquid that reacts to form a solid when exposed to a certain threshold of light. Projecting carefully crafted patterns of light — essentially “movies” — onto a rotating cylinder of liquid solidifies the desired shape “all at once.”
The new printer was inspired by the computed tomography (CT) scans that can help doctors locate tumors and fractures within the body. CT scans project X-rays or other types of electromagnetic radiation into the body from all different angles. Analyzing the patterns of transmitted energy reveals the geometry of the object.
Besides patterning the light, which requires complex calculations to get the exact shapes and intensities right, the other major challenge faced by the researchers was how to formulate a material that stays liquid when exposed to a little bit of light, but reacts to form a solid when exposed to a lot of light.
The 3D printing resin is composed of liquid polymers mixed with photosensitive molecules and dissolved oxygen. Light activates the photosensitive compound which depletes the oxygen. Only in those 3D regions where all the oxygen has been used up do the polymers form the “cross-links” that transform the resin from a liquid to a solid. The objects also don’t have to be transparent. The researchers printed objects that appear to be opaque using a dye that transmits light at the curing wavelength but absorbs most other wavelengths.
This work was supported by UC Berkeley faculty startup funds and by Laboratory-Directed Research and Development funds from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The team has filed a patent application on the technique.