Feb. 15, 2016 | By Kira

With a summit height of 4,478 m (14,692ft), the Matterhorn is one of the highest mountains in Europe, yet researchers from the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Switzerland have now 3D printed an entire series of Matterhorn models, each less than a tenth of a millimeter in size.

The objective of the research was not merely to show off how small a mountain could be 3D printed, but to demonstrate that these nanoscale 3D printed objects can in fact in mass-produced. This is an important finding, as large numbers of microscopic 3D structures—which, when found in nature, often exhibit special properties—could be used to improve industrial machine manufacturing.

Each 3D printed Matterhorn model is only around seven hundredths of a millimeter, making its height less than the thickness of a sheet of paper. Image via PSI.

For instance, Helmut Schift, leader of the research project at PSI, provides the example of a snake. “Many species of snakes are able to glide over sand without significantly wearing down their skin,” he explained. This is because the snake’s skin is covered in scales and ridges measuring just a few thousandths of a millimeter high. These 3D structures reduce friction in one direction, protecting the snake even if it is traversing rugged ground.

“One could imagine furnishing machine parts that are exposed to powerful stresses through friction with a similarly structured surface,” continued Schift. Covering a machine part—or perhaps even a vehicle, or body armor—in nanoscale 3D printed structures would thereby minimize its wear and tear and extend its lifespan.

The 3D printed Matterhorns prove that such small structures can be produced deliberately and reproducibly on a mass scale, and will open the door to further research and development.

PSI researcher Robert Kirchner at the laser device used to produce the Matterhorn models

In order to produce the Matterhorn models, the PSI researchers turned to 3D photolithography, also known as two-photon lithography, the same process used by Nanoscribe to 3D print ‘Spermbots’ that could potentially help solve male infertility.

“We make the structures out of a light-sensitive material,” explained Robert Kirchner, another scientist at PSI. “In places where the illumination is especially intense, the initial fluid material becomes hard, and the remaining material can be washed away. To expose the material, we use a special laser whose beam is only intense enough to alter the material at the focal point of a lens. We move this focal point through the material. Thus we can determine, for every individual nanometre-sized point, whether the material will wash away in the end or stay put. In this way we can fabricate almost arbitrarily complex objects with nanoscale details.”

The resulting 3D printed Matterhorn measures around seven hundredths of a millimeter, yet it still retains the distinctive physical and structural features of the actual Mountain. It’s summit, for example, is clearly visible, though it has a diameter of only 100 nanometres (around the size of a virus).

PSI researchers Helmut Schift and Robert Kirchner

According to PSI, the serial 3D printing of each nanoscale Matterhorn is still “quite laborious” and requires far too much time and labor to apply in real-life scenarios. However, the actual two-photon 3D printing process only has to be carried out once. From the single 3D printed model, a mold can be made and used to cast and mass-produce a larger series.

The research was carried about by scientists in the Matter and Material department of the Paul Scherrer Institute, which also performs world-class research in energy and environment, and human health. 



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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