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MIT and UT Austin researchers pioneer handheld 3D printer

The device, which is smaller than a coin, was made using chip-based technology

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Researchers from MIT and the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) have made significant strides toward creating a handheld 3D printer. This innovative device, which fits in the palm of your hand, has the potential to revolutionize how we create customized, low-cost objects on the go, such as fasteners for a wobbly bicycle wheel or critical components for medical operations.

This proof-of-concept device features a millimeter-scale photonic chip that emits reconfigurable beams of light into a resin well. The resin solidifies into a desired shape when exposed to these light beams. Remarkably, the chip achieves this without any moving parts – relying instead on an array of tiny optical antennas to steer the light beam into the liquid resin, which cures rapidly upon contact with the specific wavelength of visible light.

Combining silicon photonics and photochemistry, the interdisciplinary research team demonstrated a chip capable of steering light beams to 3D print two-dimensional patterns, including the letters M-I-T, in mere seconds. Looking ahead, the researchers envision a system where a photonic chip emits a 3D hologram of visible light, curing an entire object in one rapid step.

This portable 3D printer could have numerous applications, such as enabling clinicians to create tailor-made medical device components or allowing engineers to produce rapid prototypes directly at a job site. Jelena Notaros, the Robert J. Shillman Career Development Professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) at MIT, emphasized the transformative potential of this technology. “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,” she said.

The paper detailing this research includes contributions from Sabrina Corsetti, lead author and EECS graduate student; Milica Notaros PhD ’23; Tal Sneh, an EECS graduate student; Alex Safford, a recent graduate of UT Austin; and Zak Page, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin. The research was published in Nature Light Science and Applications.

MIT and UT Austin researchers pioneer handheld 3D printer. The device, which is smaller than a coin, was made using chip-based technology.
a) Electrically controlled beam steering of the main lobe of the 3D printer chip’s visible-light integrated optical phased array when a square wave with a varying peak voltage is applied across the liquid-crystal-based phase shifter53,54. b) Photographs of a 3D printed line, created using the chip-based printer, within a well of remaining liquid resin (top) and the same solid 3D printed line after separation from the remaining liquid resin (bottom). c) Photographs of a 3D printed MIT logo created using the chip-based printer, with a US nickel for scale (left) and zoomed in (right). Source: MIT.

The Notaros group at MIT previously developed integrated optical-phased-array systems for steering light beams, a technology crucial for lidar sensors and augmented-reality applications. Concurrently, the Page Group at UT Austin demonstrated specialized resins that could rapidly cure under visible light. This collaboration bridged the gap between photochemistry and silicon photonics, leading to the creation of the chip-based 3D printer.

Their prototype features a single photonic chip with an array of 160-nanometer-thick optical antennas. The chip, small enough to fit onto a US quarter, uses an off-chip laser to emit a steerable beam of visible light into the resin – curing it on contact. Electrical signals nonmechanically steer the light beam, forming the desired shapes.

To achieve efficient modulation of visible-wavelength light, the researchers used liquid crystal to create compact modulators integrated onto the chip. This material’s unique optical properties enable precise control of the light’s amplitude and phase. The collaboration between the Notaros and Page groups involved fine-tuning the chemical formulations of the resin to achieve rapid curing and long shelf life.

The team aims to develop a system where a chip emits a hologram of visible light in a resin well, enabling volumetric 3D printing in a single step. “To be able to do that, we need a completely new silicon-photonics chip design. We already laid out a lot of what that final system would look like in this paper. And, now, we are excited to continue working towards this ultimate demonstration,” said Notaros.

This research was funded by the US National Science Foundation, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Robert A. Welch Foundation, the MIT Rolf G. Locher Endowed Fellowship, and the MIT Frederick and Barbara Cronin Fellowship.

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