3D-Printing Precision: The World’s Smallest Wineglass

3D Printing Silica Wineglass: A Breakthrough in Manufacturing Technology

In the constantly expanding realm of 3D printing (aka additive manufacturing), Swedish scientists have achieved a remarkable feat. By using a new process on silica glass, a notoriously challenging material to work with, they've demonstrated they can fabricate the smallest wineglass. This groundbreaking method opens up a plethora of possibilities, ranging from telecommunications to robotics. In this article, we delve into the details of this revolutionary technique, exploring its potential applications, advantages of the procedure.

The findings were highlighted in the Journal Nature Communications. Important advances in science which are time-sensitive are published not as articles, but as communications which have an accelerated editorial process.

Understanding the Challenge

Silica glass, also known as amorphous silicon dioxide, has long been a coveted material for various industries due to its exceptional properties, including thermal and chemical stability, hardness, and optical transparency. However, 3D printing silica glass at the microscale has posed significant challenges. Previous methods, such as stereolithography and direct ink writing, have only achieved feature sizes on the order of several tens of micrometers, leaving much room for improvement.

While some research is aimed at making giant 3D-printed structures in space, this research goes to the opposite extreme. The smallest wineglass is shown with a scanning electron microscope below. The rim is thinner than the diameter of a human hair. Beside it, is a more complicated example: a fiber optic resonator for use in fiber optic telecommunications. Since fiber optics are made of glass, this is an elegant demonstration.

The wineglass is a relatable and commonplace item and because of its grail-like imagery, it makes for a better demonstration of the precision of this method than the unfamiliar but clearly impressive resonator beside it. These will be useful as quantum networking begins to propagate. The internet will operate as a series of repeaters and will utilize existing underwater fiber optic cables.


scanning electron micrograph of world's smallest wineglass
Word's smallest wineglass (left) and Fiber optical Resonator (right) credit: KTH Royal Institute of Technology


As an exciting proof of concept, the Swedish scientists successfully 3D-printed the world's smallest wineglass (made of actual glass) using their new technique. The wineglass features a rim smaller than the width of a human hair, demonstrating the remarkable precision achievable with this method. This achievement not only showcases the capabilities of the technology but also emphasizes its potential impact on various industries.

The development of a novel 3D printing technique for silica glass by Swedish scientists marks a significant breakthrough in manufacturing technology. This innovative method, which utilizes hydrogen silsesquioxane (HSQ) and eliminates the need for thermal treatment (sintering at ~1200 C), unlocks new possibilities in telecommunications, robotics, and optics. Hydrogen silsesquioxane (HSQ) is an inorganic silica-like material described by the empirical formula HSiO1.5.

hydrogen silesequioxane
R = H. Credit: Wikipedia

With its enhanced energy efficiency and diverse application opportunities, 3D-printed silica glass has the potential to transform industries and drive technological advancements. The world's smallest 3D-printed wineglass serves as a remarkable testament to the precision and capabilities of this groundbreaking technique. It streamlines a more difficult process.

By offering an unprecedented combination of energy efficiency, precision, and flexibility, 3D-printed silica glass is poised to revolutionize various industries and pave the way for new possibilities in the world of manufacturing.

The Breakthrough Technique

Researchers at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm have developed an innovative approach to 3D printing silica glass. Instead of relying on sol-gel processes with organic mixtures, they turned to an inorganic material called hydrogen silsesquioxane (HSQ). HSQ can be patterned using electron beams, ion beams, and specific wavelengths of UV light, eliminating the need for organic compounds as photoinitiators or binders.

worlds smallest wineglass
Author's visualization.


This novel technique enables direct cross-linking of the inorganic HSQ, simplifying the 3D printing process and allowing for sub-micrometer precision. Cross-linking is a way of adding connections between strands of polymer even silica to strengthen the material. The refined surfaces are made are less a micron in size which is remarkable.

"The backbone of the internet is based on optical fibers made of glass. In those systems, all kinds of filters and couplers are needed that can now be 3D printed by our technique," says co-author Kristinn Gylfason, an associate professor of Micro- and Nanosystems at KTH. "This opens many new possibilities."

The Three-Step Printing Process: Dropping, Tracing, and Dissolving

The 3D printing method developed by the Swedish scientists involves three main steps:

Step 1: Dropping HSQ Solution

The process begins by drop-casting HSQ dissolved in organic solvents onto a substrate. This creates a thin layer of HSQ that serves as the foundation for the subsequent steps.

Step 2: Shape Tracing with a Laser

Once the HSQ layer dries, a focused sub-picosecond laser beam is used to trace the desired 3D shape. This laser beam precisely defines the structure of the printed object.

Step 3: Dissolving Unexposed HSQ

To finalize the 3D printing process, any unexposed HSQ is dissolved using a potassium hydroxide solution. This step ensures that only the desired structure remains, free from any unexposed material. Traditional 3D printing is also known as additive manufacturing and in case after case, is proven superior to traditional subtractive manufacturing which builds things by subtracting material away make a desired form or design. The steps here are clearly not all additive. Technically speaking, these are refinements to the additive process that allows for sub-micron precision. It does not print with sub-micron precision which may be a future direction for the method.

Advantages and Applications

The new 3D printing technique for silica glass offers several noteworthy advantages:

Enhanced Energy Efficiency

Unlike traditional methods that require heating materials to high temperatures for extended periods, this technique eliminates the need for thermal treatment. Consequently, it significantly reduces the energy consumption associated with 3D printing silica glass. By using readily available commercial materials, the method becomes more accessible and economically viable.

Advantages and Applications: Unlocking New Possibilities

The new 3D-printing technique for silica glass offers several advantages that open up a wide range of applications:

1. Energy Efficiency: Reducing Thermal Treatment

Unlike traditional methods that require high temperatures for extended periods, this innovative technique eliminates the need for thermal treatment. By significantly reducing the energy consumption associated with 3D printing silica glass, this technique promotes sustainability and cost-effectiveness.

2. Customized Lenses for Medical Machinery: Revolutionizing Minimally Invasive Surgery

smallest wineglass future surgery
Rendered in Stable Diffusion

The ability to create customized lenses for medical machinery presents a breakthrough in the field of minimally invasive surgery.

With the precise fabrication made possible by this 3D-printing technique, medical professionals can achieve higher levels of accuracy and improve patient outcomes.

3. Micro-Robots for Extreme Environments: Navigating the Uncharted

The newfound capability of producing micro-robots that can navigate extreme environments holds tremendous potential. These micro-robots can be utilized in various industries, such as exploration, manufacturing, and healthcare. Their compact size and enhanced durability make them ideal for tasks that were previously challenging or impossible to accomplish.

tiny robots sub micron 3d printing smallest wineglass
Microbots. Visualization in Stable Diffusion

4. Optical Components for Telecommunications: Enhancing Data Transmission

Silica glass components play a critical role in the field of telecommunications, particularly in the backbone of the internet. By 3D printing filters and couplers directly using this innovative technique, the efficiency and flexibility of fiber optic networks can be significantly improved. This advancement has the potential to revolutionize data transmission and pave the way for faster, more reliable communication systems.

The Significance of the World's Smallest Wineglass

The image of the chalice is undeniably impressive. They could've called it the smallest flower vase. However, it can't hold flowers so glass makes sense though whether they can fill it with wine is another question.. In summary, this innovative method brings us closer to a future where complex structures can be 3D printed with exceptional precision and efficiency. The world's smallest 3D-printed wine glass serves as a symbol of human ingenuity and the relentless pursuit of technological advancement.

Key Takeaways:

  • Silica glass can now be 3D printed at an unprecedented level of precision using the new technique.
  • The energy-efficient process eliminates the need for thermal treatment, making it more sustainable.
  • Customized lenses, micro-robots, and enhanced telecommunications are among the many applications of 3D-printed silica glass components.
  • The world's smallest wine glass showcases the extraordinary capabilities of this groundbreaking technology.

The stability of silica glass make it a valuable material for various optical applications. With 3D printing, the fabrication of intricate optical components, such as lenses and filters, becomes more accessible and customizable. This breakthrough has the potential to revolutionize the optics and photonics industry.

The author of this article is a chemist with experience in pharmaceutical discovery and polymer science and has lectured at University. We cover the space where science and society collide.

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