3D-printed glass offers new innovations for construction industry

Design is an ever-evolving phenomenon, adjusting to societal needs and a product of ever-changing technologies. Not only can we manufacture everyday objects with glass- such as windows, screens, and doors- but glass can be moulded into the smallest of structures, small enough that even the human eye often cannot decipher what object it is.

Utilized in the construction and biomedical industries, glass is also an art form, used traditionally in stained glass windows and glass blowing. Until recently, glass was formed via conventional glass manufacturing techniques, however this year, German researchers from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology utilized 3D printing technologies to ‘print’ transparent glass into usable objects.

Until recently, 3D printers would not allow the construction of glass- a clear disadvantage as 3D-printed objects are not only quickly manufactured but additionally are often resistant to chemical damage and heat. However, earlier this year, researchers discovered that we can print transparent glass with 3D printing technologies- similarly to how we can print other human-made materials such as paper, polymers, and metals.

Using ordinary 3D printers, the German researchers were able to print glass objects. Specifically, sand nanoparticles were mixed with a liquid solution, creating a high-purity quartz, which was placed into the 3D printer and utilized as ‘ink.' Once printed, the 3D glass object was placed into an industrial oven (to burn off additional extraneous materials), resulting in a transparent glass object. Despite these promising results, the researchers note that the technology is still limited to creating objects only of a certain size.

Computer-based applications and advancements in technologies mean that the construction industry is increasingly reliant on scientific innovations. 3D-printed glass promises a range of excellent results: the production of complex three-dimensional forms in a quick, efficient and democratized manner without human error. Consequently, utilizing this technology engenders new applications and opportunities for production and research, e.g., miniature glass tubings, microfluidics and fibre optics.

Although still in development, the system is not limited to simple shapes like previous research has suggested- it can drizzle glass into various shapes and patterns to create intricate designs. A non-porous material, with optical transparency, the 3D-printed glass has a smooth surface and a roughness of several nanometres. Additionally, when combined with metal salts, coloured glass can be constructed, providing a greater choice of materials created by 3D printing for architectural and construction purposes.

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