COPL researchers navigate future fiber optics and infrared with 3D printed glass

Scientists at Université Laval, Quebec City, Canada, have developed a method of 3D printing a type of glass suitable for incorporation into lasers and infrared optics.

The chalcogenide glass material has the potential to be used in various thermal imaging techniques, telecommunications devices, and other optical equipment. Through 3D printing, the team seek to create new, innovative geometries from the material, leading to the development of speciality components that can’t be produced any other way.

Yannick Ledemi, a researcher at ULaval’s Centre d’Optique, Photonique et Laser (COPL) and co-author of a study reporting this advance summarizes the results: “3D printing of optical materials will pave the way for a new era of designing and combining materials to produce the photonic components and fibers of the future.”

“This new method could potentially result in a breakthrough for efficient manufacturing of infrared optical components at a low cost.”

Advanced optical fibers from a desktop 3D printer

One of the interesting properties of chalcogenide glass is that it can be switched from amorphous to crystalline phase by precisely controlling how it is heated and cooled. This characteristic is what makes the material suitable for optical use, and even the storage of information – some types of chalcogenide glass are used to make re-writable CDs and DVDs.

The chalcogenide glass handled by the COPL team is a type commonly used for infrared transmission and contains arsenic sulfide. Compared to other glasses, this material softens at a relatively low temperature, around 330°C. Though outside the range of a common desktop 3D printer (230°C for PLA or up to 285°C for ABS) the team were able to modify a Creality ENDER-4 to work with the material. In place of highly specialized hardware, the use of a commercially available 3D printer is a key cost point of the experiment. The base ingredients used to fabricate the arsenic sulfide chalcogenide glass are also off the shelf materials.

In order to create adequate adhesion between extruded material and the bed, the same chalcogenide glass also had to be used as a substrate for 3D printing. Both brass and stainless steel proved inadequate for this purpose.

Illustration and photo of the modified Creality used to 3D print chalcogenide glass. Image via Optical Materials Express
Illustration and photo of the modified Creality used to 3D print chalcogenide glass. Image via Optical Materials Express

Toward multimaterial glass 3D printing 

Once the team succeeded in extruding the material and creating adequate adhesion, they produced a series of samples. One of the potential flaws the team looked for in these objects was the occurrence of bubbles. The samples show that “The result of chalcogenide extrusion is a bubble-free glass with no cracks formed during printing.” Some optical properties are however lost due to interface irregularities between layers.

3D printed samples from the COPL experiment show no bubbles. Image via Optical Materials Express
3D printed samples from the COPL experiment show no bubbles. Image via Optical Materials Express

The overall outcome of experimentation is that the team prove the feasibility of 3D printing chalcogenide glass, and its potential to create fiber preforms with complex geometries. Through development, the team believe this method could be a promising way of manufacturing high volumes of fiber preforms. They also aim to look into potential multimaterial 3D printing methods, which would further enhance utility of the glass.

Ledemi adds, “Our approach is very well suited for soft chalcogenide glass, but alternative approaches are also being explored to print other types of glass. This could allow fabrication of components made of multiple materials.”

“Glass could also be combined with polymers with specialized electro-conductive or optical properties to produce multi-functional 3D printed devices.”

Other 3D printed glass methods include a German collaborative’s experimentation with fused silica glass and MIT’s sculptural G3DP platform.

For more information on this particular experiment, “3D-printing of arsenic sulfide chalcogenide glasses” is published open access in Optical Materials Express journal. It is co-authored by E. Baudet, Y. Ledemi, P. Larochelle, S. Morency, and Y. Messaddeq.

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Featured image shows a sample of arsenic sulfide chalcogenide glass 3D printed at COPL. Photo via Université Laval