Nov 13, 2015 | By Alec

We here at come across a lot of fun 3D printed tributes to animals – pets, favorite creatures – all the time, but nothing has amazed us quite as much as a new project by the London based artist Jonty Hurwitz. In an attempt to draw attention to one of the major ecological disasters of our day – the unbridled, strongly increasing poaching of elephants – he has 3D printed a very modest, but impressive tribute. A 3D printed elephant, but one that is just a tenth of a millimeter tall, using nanoscale 3D printing techniques.

That size alone is enough to make this a 3D printing wonder, but it fits into a series of 3D printing projects by the artist. All of his nanosculptures, as he calls them, are 3D printed in photosensitive material and are small enough to fit through the eye of a needle, fragile enough to break with your breath and so minute they make the ridges on your fingerprints look like rugged outdoor terrain.

But to Hurwitz, this elephant is less about the technology, and more about the message. Referring to a National Geographic article from 2014, he states on his website that African elephant killing is reaching unprecedented levels and are going on at a rate that will quickly make the animal extinct. ‘Ivory-seeking poachers have killed 100,000 African elephants in just three years, according to a new study that provides the first reliable continent-wide estimates of illegal kills,’ he states.

Elephant tusk photo by Kate Brooks.

With this remarkable 3D printing project, he is therefore sending a simple message: ‘We have come so far! We can place a microscopic elephant between the grooves of a human fingerprint, but we don't seem able to save the species from our own hands,’ he says, shining a very strong light on the fragility of the world’s elephant population.

Now that message is an important one and worth sharing, but we can of course not help but be absolutely fascinated by the manufacturing process behind this miniscule elephant too. As the artist explains on his website, fabrication was realized with the help of scientists Stefan Hengsbach and Florian Rupp of the Institute of Microstructure Technology, of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. ‘The structure is created using a ground-breaking new 3D printing technology and a technique called Multiphoton Lithography. Ultimately these works are created using the physical phenomenon of two photon absorption. Art, literally created with Quantum Physics,’ Hurwitz says on his website.

Fortunately, he goes on to explain it in terms that sound realistic even to those of us who don’t know quantum physics. ‘If you illuminate a light-sensitive polymer with Ultra Violet wavelengths, it solidifies wherever it was irradiated in a kind of crude lump. Some of you may have experienced a polymer like this first hand at the dentist when your filling is glued in with a UV light,’ he says. ‘If however you use longer wavelength intense light, and focus it tightly through a microscope, something wonderful happens: at the focus point, the polymer absorbs TWO PHOTONS and responds as if it had been illuminated by UV light, namely it will solidify.’

This photon absorption process only happens on a single point, creating a tiny 3D pixel (or a voxel). To create something as detailed as this elephant, the process simply needs to be repeated over and over and over again, merging pixel by pixel and layer by layer. Through a computer-controlled mechanism, the sculpture grows fractionally over a process that lasts hours and hours.

To capture such a miniature sculpture on camera, Hurwitz and his team even had to resort to an unusual scanning tool called a Scanning Electron Microscope. ‘At high magnification, hundreds of images of the nano sculpture were captured as a Piezo stage was rotated to a precision of below one ten thousandth of a degree,’ he says. ‘Each individual frame in the sequence can take several minutes to capture (depending on resolution), meaning that one second of film can take up to 4 hours to film.  A painstakingly detailed process, in which any micro-blip means starting again from scratch.’ This groundbreaking system has been developed by German optics specialist Stefan Diller, and is the only such system in the world.

The result is a combination of art, technology and a powerful message that needs to do more than just marvel people. It needs to convince them that animal poaching in Africa can be stopped, and must be.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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