Designer and researcher Neri Oxman and her Mediated Matter group at MIT Media Lab have developed a technique for 3D-printing molten glass, meaning that transparent glass objects can be printed for the first time (+ movie).
The group, based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, built an additive manufacturing machine that extrudes molten glass - a process the team believes could be used to create architectural components and even entire building facades.
The project, titled G3DP, represents "a first of its kind optically transparent glass printing process," the group said.
Oxman's team have used the technique to produce a range of vases and bowls, but Oxman said that the new glass-printing technology could be used at an architectural scale.
"In this project we wanted to explore the possibility of creating that are at once structurally sound, environmentally informed and have the potential to contain and flow media through them," she said, adding that glass could one day be printed to create "a single transparent building skin".
The G3DP printer features two insulated chambers, one above the other. The upper chamber serves as as kiln, keeping molten glass heated to 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit (1,000 degrees Celsius).
This acts as the print cartridge, moving laterally to deposit a continuous stream of liquid glass into the lower chamber via a nozzle made from alumina zirconia silica – a chemical compound that is resistant to heat.
The lower chamber acts as the printer bed and anneals, or gradually cools, the glass as it builds up layer by layer. Annealing prevents the cooled glass from shattering when subjected to temperature change or impact.
The process, for which a patent application has been submitted, can create an infinite variety of glass forms, just like a traditional 3D printer.
"The additive manufacturing of glass enables us to generate structures that are geometrically customisable and optically tunable with high spatial resolution in manufacturing," Oxman told Dezeen.
"We've also experimented with colour gradients and are currently considering ways in which colouration may affect environmental performance, specifically solar radiation," said Oxman.
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"Because we can design and print outer and inner surface textures independently (unlike glass blowing) we can control solar transmittance."
Oxman believes the process could be developed to produce "aerodynamic building facades optimised for solar gain" and "geometrically customised and variable thickness lighting devices".
"Think Centre Pompidou without functional or formal partitions," Oxman said. "Instead, consider a single transparent building skin that can integrate multiple functions and can be shaped to tune its performance."
The G3DP project was created as a collaboration between the Mediated Matter group at the MIT Media Lab, the Mechanical Engineering Department, the MIT Glass Lab and Wyss Institute.
Researchers include John Klein, Michael Stern, Markus Kayser, Chikara Inamura, Giorgia Franchin, Shreya Dave, James Weaver, Peter Houk and professor Neri Oxman.
The full paper about the project, titled Additive Manufacturing of Optically Transparent Glass, can be read here.
G3DPis the latest 3D printing research project from the Mediated Matter group. Previous research includes 3D-printed "wearable skins" designed to facilitate synthetic biological processes, and investigations into how to use silkworms to print architectural structures.