Revolutionary Handheld, Chip-Based 3D Printer Unveiled in Latest DARPA-Funded Initiative

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In research sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), teams from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Texas at Austin have developed what they describe as “the first chip-based 3D printer.” The results of this exploration, titled “Silicon-photonics-enabled chip-based 3D printer,” were documented and shared in Nature Light Science and Applications.

The experimental model created can be mounted onto the size of a U.S. quarter and stems from the advances within MIT’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) department in designing intricate microscale optical antennas. This advancement was paired with pioneering contributions from researchers at UT focusing on high-speed resin curing through specific optical wavelengths.

This device has become notable not only for its rapid production time, producing components with “sub-millimeter scale voxels within seconds”, but also for its innovative technique in directing light sources. Forgoing the traditional method of mechanical mirrors, this chip-based printer employs an external laser that directs the optical antennas via electrical signals.

Next, the team is aiming to use its findings to build a chip capable of hologram-based, volumetric 3D printing. The work should continue to draw the interest of public agencies like DARPA, which in March announced the Additive Manufacturing of Microelectronics systEms (AMME) program, an endeavor to make 3D printing at the 500 nm scale routine and rapid.

In an MIT press release about the handheld, chip-based 3D printer project, the paper’s senior author, EECS professor Jelena Notaros, said, “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. It is exciting to think about the new applications that could come out of this and how the field of 3D printing could change.”

The paper’s lead author, EECS graduate student Sabrina Corsetti, explained, “With photocurable resins, it is very hard to get them to cure all the way up at infrared wavelengths, which is where integrated optical-phased-array streams were operating in the past for lidar. Here, we are meeting in the middle between standard photochemistry and silicon photonics by using visible-light-curable resins and visible-light-emitting chips to create this chip-based 3D printer. You have this merging of two technologies into a completely new idea.”

That notion of a “merging of two technologies into a completely new idea” hits the nail on the head concerning what’s so exciting about the manufacturing R&D boom on the horizon over the next decade. No one technological field will have a monopoly on innovation.

The point, rather, is quite the opposite: those in the pure-research world want to gauge the potential for what can happen when the gains from every part of the whole landscape of the last couple of decades of manufacturing innovation are combined. If AM is a particularly significant component of this schema, it is because the design freedom and material-input versatility overlaps across such a diverse range of different high-tech areas.

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