Wednesday, May 12, 2010

FEMTOPRINT Project Will Bring Nanoscale Manufacturing to the Desktop with 3D Printer

A European science team is kick starting an EU-funded project with the aim of providing users with shoe box sized system that researchers can use to produce their own microsystems with nanoscale features for a lot less money and without big enterprise help.

FEMTOPRINT ('Femtosecond laser printer for glass microsystems with nanoscale features') has clinched almost $3.1 million (EUR 2.5 million) in EU support to develop a 3D (three dimensional) printer for these microsystems, which are made of glass and are destined for use in research, academia and industry.

The FEMTOPRINT project is backed by the 'Nanosciences, nanotechnologies, materials and new production technologies' Theme of the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). Coordinated by the Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE) in the Netherlands, the FEMTOPRINT partners say their 'femtoprinter' is the answer users need to form 3D patterns in glass material by using a low-power femtosecond (1 quadrillionth of a second) laser beam.

Dr. Yves Bellouard of the Department of Mechanical Engineering is coordinator of a new European project, Femtoprint
 Image credit: Eindhoven University of Technology

Despite their super mini size, microsystems are unique in that they can help power up various devices. Mechanical and electric components are commonly found inside microsystems that help these tiny machines measure signals and drive components. For instance, accelerometers (electromechanical devices that measure acceleration forces) are used in the computing world for their capacity to protect hard drives in laptops. If you drop your laptop, you can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the accelerator detects the sudden fall and switches off the hard drive so that the damage is contained.

The problem, however, is the high cost of producing microsystems. But their high price is just one headache; these mini machines also consume a lot of energy and need to be manufactured in a special 'cleanroom'.

FEMTOPRINT project leader Dr Yves Bellouard of TUE's Department of Mechanical Engineering contends that the sluggish development of these microsystems can be attributed to those problems. He explained that only large enterprises have the resources needed to get these microsystems out of the laboratory and into the real world.

Dr Bellouard also notes that an investment is considered lucrative only when the market actually needs substantial amounts of these microsystems. So the biggest losers are the tiny, innovative companies and applications that are too specialised to go up against the big guns.

And this is where FEMTOPRINT enters the picture: the partners use the femtosecond laser to create 3D patterns in glass. The properties of the glass change in the areas that are exposed to the laser light, depending on the intensity of that light, according to the researchers. So users can adjust the refractive index of the material, which the team says is a significant optical characteristic. The outcome is that the selected pattern is converted into a type of road network for the conduction of light.

Optical motion sensors and optical computer chips could also benefit from this innovative development. The FEMTOPRINT partners point out that the laser light can have an impact on the chemical properties of the glass. The applied 3D pattern can be etched in one step compared to traditional methods that require patterns to be developed layer by layer. The upshot of this process is that because the pattern is applied in the interior of the glass, there is no contact with the air and no cleanroom is needed.

The project partners hope to reduce this femtosecond laser for glass micro and nano manufacturing to a shoe-boxed size by 2015. FEMTOPRINT, which brings together French, German, Dutch, Swiss and UK experts, also seeks to bring the femtoprint laser to market with the creation of a consortium spin-off. Diverse industrial sectors will profit from such a development, and there is great potential for economic gains as well.

The manufacture of microsystems requires big, expensive and energy-guzzling machines as well as a special cleanroom. Bellouard holds this to be one of the reasons why the development of microsystems is relatively slow: only big companies have the requisite resources. Moreover, an investment does not become profitable until the market needs great quantities of these microsystems. This implies that small, innovative enterprises and applications that are too specialized hardly stand a chance.

The Frenchman uses an alternative: the femtosecond laser with which he applies three-dimensional patterns in glass. The properties of the glass change in the areas that are exposed to the laser light, depending on the intensity of that light. Thus, the refractive index of the material, an important optical characteristic, can be adjusted. As a result, the selected pattern becomes a kind of road network for the conduction of light. This finding may be applied in optical computer chips, for instance, but also in optical motion sensors.

In addition to the optical properties, the laser light can also influence the chemical properties of the glass, particularly its sensitivity to acids. The applied three-dimensional pattern can then simply be etched away in one go, whereas conventional methods still build up the patterns layer by layer. And as the pattern is applied in the interior of the glass, there is no contact with the air, so there is no cleanroom required. Bellouard and his colleagues have already proved that this method enables them to make the basis for a lab-on-a-chip.

An important goal of Femtoprint is to reduce the required laser, which at present still occupies a laboratory table, to the size of a shoebox. The French laser manufacturer Amplitude Systèmes will be responsible for this part of the project. There are a number of French, Swiss, German and English partners involved as well. Bellouard’s group will focus mainly on the research into the effects of the laser light on ‘fused silica’, the high-grade glass that is used for the microsystems.

Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE):


  1. We hope that this project push through. The cost of the technology will decrease as time goes by, so it is still possible to start this project with a lesser cost.

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  2. Good news. This FEMTOPRINT Project will definitely decrease the cost of advanced technology in coming decades. You amazingly come with exceptional posts.

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