Process is a modern take on an ancient glass making process

3D printing is an interesting technology which allows engineers and designers to get a 3D object from a digital design that can be viewed in the real world. Artists also use 3D printing to make art that is designed digitally.

A team of engineers and artists working at the University of Washington's Solheim Rapid Manufacturing Laboratory has developed a new method of using conventional 3D printers to create glass objects. A 3D printer typically uses a layer of powder that is activated by an ink jet printer that sprays a binding material at the exact location it is needed. The reaction binder adheres to the powdered and creates the object.

The problem with making glass parts in this method is that the reaction binder doesn't quickly absorb into the glass powder and the 3D objects printed in the glass medium end up with a gelatinous consistency.

Professor Mark Ganter said, "It became clear that if we could get a material into powder form at about 20 microns we could print just about anything."

Getting the powdered particles to the 20-micron size wasn't the only challenge; the team had to rework the binding agent as well. The team adjusted the ratio of powder to liquid and devised a way to make solid glass parts from the powdered glass.

"Using our normal process to print objects produced gelatin-like parts when we used glass powders," said mechanical engineering graduate student Grant Marchelli, who led the experimentation. "We had to reformulate our approach for both powder and binder."

The glass that is produced using the new method is heated to a set temperature to turn it into a solid. However, the researchers point out that the molecules of the glass remain in a disordered state so the glass is technically a super-cooled liquid rather than a true solid.

The team also says that the process is very similar to something that artists used in the past going back to ancient Egyptian times called pate de verre that was used to create glassware. The ancient technique used a glass powder mixed with a binding material like egg white or enamel.

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