3D Printing 1,000x Smaller Than a Grain of Sand

Researchers in Sweden have 3D printed silica glass micro-optics on the tips of optic fibers that are as tiny as the cross-section of a human hair. The goal is to enable faster internet and improved connectivity and to create smaller sensors and imaging systems. The researchers at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm claim that integrating silica glass optical devices with optical fibers enables innovation, including sensitive remote sensors for the environment and healthcare.

Lee-Lun Lai demonstrates the setup to print silica glass microstructures on an optical fiber. CREDIT: David Callahan

The printing method solves longstanding limitations in structuring optical fiber tips with silica glass, which typically requires high-temperature treatments that compromise the integrity of fiber coatings. The process uses a base material that doesn’t contain carbon, eliminating the need for the high temperatures needed to drive out carbon, which makes the glass structure transparent. After multiple measurements, the team printed a silica glass sensor that is more resilient than a standard plastic-based sensor. The structures are so small that you can fit 1,000 of them on the surface of a grain of sand.

The researchers also demonstrated a technique for printing nano gratings, ultra-small patterns etched onto surfaces at the nanometer scale that can be used to precisely manipulate light and could be used in quantum communication.

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