The application of 3D printing to glass materials could have a transformative impact upon its role and functions within modern built environments.

Glass would at first blush appear to be one of the least likely candidates for manipulation by means of additive manufacturing, given the extreme temperatures required for it to retain a molten state. However, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have now devised sophisticated methods for applying 3D printing techniques to this most ubiquitous of traditional building materials.

The Mediated Matter Group and the Glass Lab at MIT have teamed up to develop the first technology for the 3D printing of transparent glass. Dubbed G3DP, the new technology is capable of producing glass structures to the precise requirements of complex design.

Image courtesy of MIT

Image courtesy of MIT

The G3DP platform operates by using a dual heating structure divided into two separate chambers. The uppermost chamber serves as a Kiln Cartridge, operating at temperatures of over 1000 degrees Celsius and holding enough material for the creation of a single construction component.

The lower chamber provides the function of annealing structures, once molten material is passed through a nuzzle made from alumina-zircon-silica materials.

The end result of this technical ingenuity is the ability to produce glass structures of extraordinary detail, complexity and precision, whose creation with tax the skills of even the most adept craftsmen.

The MIT researchers are already conducting initial trials on how to produce glass components that can be used for architectural purposes.

3d printed glassAccording Neri Oxman, head of the Mediated Matter Group,the technology will have a profound impact on the use of glass in architecture and the development of built environments, facilitating the creation of complex structures such as aerodynamic building facades that optimise the ingress of natural sunlight.

“The advantages with 3D printing are in the expanded design space, the ability to achieve customisation, and the fact that design complexity can be achieved,” said Oxman. “Glass can be distributed in a more sophisticated way throughout the cross section of each component, and intricate inner features are feasible which enable the incorporation of internal channels to distribute water, air and other biological mediums.”

At a more advanced level the technology could also be applied to the use of printable optoelectronics or the embedding of optical fibres into 3D-printed glass building facades, conferring smart capabilities upon the exterior skin of built assets.

The team at MIT have already used the technology for the creation of a number of stunning glass structures, which will placed on  exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in 2016.