3D Printer That Crafts Objects With Beams of Light Could Help Astronauts

A new 3D printing technique promises to craft objects using beams of light, aiding all manner of professionals — from astronauts to zoologists.

The technique, described in a paper published Thursday in the journal Science, involves shining light rays onto a yellow light-sensitive liquid to create solid objects. Here’s how this new technique works: Scientists create a 3D model of the object they desire, create a movie, and use a projector to beam the information into a rotating cylinder. The nature of the liquid means users can encase other objects in resin; creating a screwdriver handle around a piece of metal is one such example.

Hayden Taylor, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California and senior author of a paper describing the new technique, tells Inverse that this new 3D printing technique uses existing hardware but makes more sophisticated use of software.

“The apparatus required for the new process is inherently simple: it requires a video projector — which could be a standard off-the shelf projector — and a steadily rotating volume of the light-sensitive material,” Taylor says. The tricky part, he explains, is the calculations used to translate the 3D model into a video — but even that “can be carried out with a personal computer if necessary.”

The printer was designed by looking at computed tomography scans, which are used by doctors to find tumors by sending electromagnetic waves into the body. The team needed to calculate how much light to send and when as the cylinder full resin rotated. As the light hits the resin, photosensitive molecules deplete the dissolved oxygen to create a solid structure. The leftover material is reusable for other projects, and the method creates practically no waste.

The resin crafting a model of “The Thinker.”

It comes at a time when 3D printing is experiencing something of a renaissance, following the mass hype around the area in 2013. The past two months alone, researchers at Columbia University have discovered a way to 3D print wood, another team demonstrated how users can create a whole wedding scene, and researchers at the University of Michigan have created a method that can print objects 100 times faster than before.

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