Nanoscribe 3D-prints microscopic objects using freakin' laser beams

Nanoscribe
MechWarrior 3D prints with layers that are thinner than a human hair.

As cool as it is to be able to replicate just about any object you want using a 3D printer, the things you create can still look really rough, because the printers are not high-resolution. That is, the layers of plastic it lays down are not thin enough—think of it a little like the jaggies on a low-resolution computer screen.

Nanoscribe might have the solution in the form of a tiny 3D printer that prints microscopic layers as thin as 30 nanometers (0.03 microns), whereas the best a typical 3D printer can achieve are 16,000-nanometer (16-micron) layers. But that’s not all—this printer molds objects out of photosensitive material using lasers, earning it the name Photonic Professional GT.

The Photonic Professional GT is a laser lithography system that quite literally zaps photosensitive material into polymer structures using very short laser pulses. The light-sensitive (also referred to as "photo-resist") material polymerizes and solidifies upon being hit with these laser beams.

Nanoscribe
The Photonic Professional GT.

This cutting-edge technology has existed for a little more than 10 years, but it has only been used in in research laboratories due to its slow print speed, though other companies like FormLabs have toyed with making consumer-level printers that use similar technology. In the last five years, however, Nanoscribe has been working on a commercially viable version of the microprinter that the company says can create microstructures 100 times faster than similar printers can today.

The reason why the Photonic Professional GT is so much faster is because of a new process called Direct Laser Writing, which uses a tiny moving mirror to reflect the laser beam at different angles. Because the GT printer can orient its laser in three directions, Nanoscribe says it can also create more complex 3D structures than other printers. Most of the current microprinter systems still employ a dual polymerization laser that remains fixed while the build area moves around.

So far, this technology has only been used to create very high-end scientific tools for nanophotonics (the study of light at a nanometer scale), photonic crystals (light-bending or focusing crystals essentially), and other optical metamaterials (i.e. fiber wire). Nanoscribe, however, is looking into new applications for microstructure processors.

Dr. Wanyin Cui, Sales Manager for Nanoscribe, explained to TechHive in an interview that some people are interested in creating better photonic CPUs with this technology. According to Cui, you can print a bonding wire between two of these photonic CPUs to create a five-terabit-per-second connection.

The video shows the real-time printing of a Hellcat spaceship from the “Wing Commander Saga” that measures just 125µm by 81µm by 26.8µm.

The technology is also being used in the medical field to develop 3D chips for cells to grow in. If you’re familiar with the concept of a system (or cell) on a chip, it’s basically the same idea, only in a 3D structure that can mimic an entire human body.

“One study is that some people put stem cells onto a very flat surface and then the stem cells differentiated into some kind of brain cell because they don’t have enough stress from the sides,” Cui said. “So if you have a 3D confinement, then the stem cell might differentiate into bone cells or some kind of muscle cells just depending on what kind of confinement you can apply to the cells”

Nanoscribe was created as a spin-off startup business of a Karlsruhe Institute of Technology laboratory through a partnership between Professor Martin Wegener and German glass company Carl Zeiss—which should sound familiar to photographers.

There are already 50 Nanoscribe machines distributed worldwide in research labs for institutions including the US Air Force, Caltech, and other Universities. Nanoscribe plans to start selling its new, faster printers for more commercial uses by the second half of this year.

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