3D Microprinter Creates Sub-Millimeter Nanostructures

By Wesley Fenlon

Nanoscribe's new printer makes the smallest Statue of Liberty you've ever seen.

One of the big challenges for 3D printers is creating objects at a very fine resolution. MakerBot's Replicator 2, for example, can get down to 100 microns--that's great for a desktop 3D printer, but not as fine as (far more expensive) industrial 3D printers, which can print layers of 30 microns or less. The finer those layers get, the harder it will be to distinguish between a homemade 3D printed object and a factory-produced plastic thingamajig.

One of the most exciting advancements in 3D printing is all about detail at that micro level. Forget the finer detail of multiple 100 micron layers for a second--look at what Nanoscribe's 3D microprinter can put together at incredibly tiny scales. See these robots? They're less than a millimeter tall.

Printing at the nanoscale doesn't offer quite the same households benefits of a full-size 3D printer, but in the fields of science and medicine, it's enormously valuable. "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," writes Technology Review.

Nanoscribe's claims its new microprinter, which it plans to sell later this year, is 100 times faster at printing microstructures than what is possible today. And that includes their current printer. Why is the new model so much faster?

Microprinters use a technology called two-photon polymerization, or, as Nanoscribe calls it, direct laser writing. It involves lasers:

"Let's assume you take a laser operating at a wavelength where the exposed photo-resist would usually be completely transparent due to the non-existence of one-photon absorption processes. In this case the chemical property of the photosensitive material can not be altered unless one focusses ultrashort laser pulses hard into the material...Hence, a chemical modification of this area occurs, which in a subsequent baking process leads to a local polymerisation."

Nanoscribe's new addition to the process is a mirror that reflects those short laser bursts at different angles. And the resolution? 30 nanometers--0.03 microns.

Check out a gallery of Nanoscribe's teensy tiny 3D printed objects.