Nanoscribe: Micro 3D Printer May Enable Industrial Breakthrough
Micro 3D printer Nanoscribe is revolutionizing 3D printing on a tiny scale.
Today’s 3D printers can do amazing things, but take a long time to actually create an object – a few hours for an iPhone case and 2,500 hours for a full car. A new desktop 3D printer called Nanoscribe can create complex microstructures incredibly fast – seconds instead of minutes and minutes instead of hours.
Michael Thiel, chief scientific officer at Nanoscribe (a spin-off from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany) recently spoke with MIT Technology Review about his company’s new 3D printing technology and the potential impact on producing medical and electronic devices.
Printing microstructures with features a few hundred nanometers in size could be useful for making heart stents, microneedles for painless shots, gecko adhesives, parts for microfluidics chips, and scaffolds for growing cells and tissue. Another important application could be in the electronics industry, where patterning nanoscale features on chips currently involves slow, expensive techniques. 3D printing would quickly and cheaply yield polymer templates that could be used to make metallic structures.
So far, 3D microprinting has been used only in research laboratories because it’s pretty slow. In fact, many research labs around the world use Nanoscribe’s first-generation printer. The new, faster machine will also find commercial use. Thiel says numerous medical, life sciences, and nanotechnology companies are interested in the new machine. “I’m positive that with the faster throughput we get with this new tool, it might have an industrial breakthrough very soon,” he says.
The technology behind most 3D microprinters is called two-photon polymerization. It involves focusing tiny, ultrashort pulses from a near-infrared laser on a light-sensitive material. The material polymerizes and solidifies at the focused spots. As the laser beam moves in three dimensions, it creates a 3D object.
Today’s printers, including Nanoscribe’s present system, keep the laser beam fixed and move the light-sensitive material along three axes using mechanical stages, which slows down printing. To speed up the process, Nanoscribe’s new tool uses a tiny moving mirror to reflect the laser beam at different angles. Thiel says generating multiple light beams with a microlens array could make the process even faster.
Nanoscribe plans to start selling 3D printers later this year.