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Star Trek–like replicator creates entire objects in minutes

A Star Trek–like replicator has arrived, but don’t expect it to synthesize a cup of Earl Grey tea (hot) on the spot. Researchers have come up with a new 3D printing technology that rapidly makes whole objects appear, seemingly from nowhere.

There is a wide array of 3D printing technologies out there. Most build objects by solidifying gels or plastics layer by layer, in many cases taking hours to build a full 3D structure. The new advance quickly creates fully formed objects by building on a technology for pinpoint delivery of radiation to cancer patients.

Here’s how it works. First, the researchers use a computer-controlled digital light projector to cast a series of 2D images through a rotating vial containing a photosensitive gel. As the vial rotates, photons entering from different angles meet at selected spots in the gel. Where they meet, their combined energy solidifies the gel. Where that meetup doesn’t occur, the photons simply pass through without altering the photosensitive material.

The approach is fast, able to create complex objects, such as a centimeter-size copy of Rodin’s famous sculpture of The Thinker in just minutes, the researchers report today in Science. It can also make 3D plastic parts around existing objects, such as a plastic handle around a metallic screwdriver shaft. The approach could also be useful for encapsulating sensitive electronics, the authors write.

And as the video above shows, objects seem to take shape from what start out as ghostly images in the gel. Kind of how a cup of Earl Grey tea materializes on command in a Star Trek replicator.