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Star Trek replicator finally replicated by real-life scientists

By Adam Pockross
Star Trek Spock and Kirk via official website 2019

Star Trek has been prescient about future technology ever since showing off a nascent cell phone in the pilot episode of the original series. But that doesn’t make the creation of this real-life replicator any less astonishing.

Throughout the incarnations of Star Trek, the replicator has produced a variety of human necessities to the good Starfleet folks exploring the outer reaches of space, primarily food and drink, but also spare parts, uniforms, and even breathable air. But as far as we know, they never instantaneously produced a miniature replica of Rodin’s “The Thinker.”

Intrepid researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley have done just that, and created a wholly different approach to 3D printing. Amazingly, it looks very much like Star Trek’s replicator, but instead of fictionally dismantling objects into sub-atomic particles or actually slowly 3D printing something layer by layer, the new approach projects light into resin, which produces small objects in a matter of minutes.

The new technology is based on the principles of computed tomography (CT), frequently used in medical and industrial 3D imaging, but never before used in the process of fabrication. But where traditional 3D imaging takes multiple X-rays to produce a 3D map, this tech reverse engineers the 3D object into 2D components, which are then projected as slides of light into the gooey resin. 

"We saw that the underlying theoretical framework of CT could be adapted in a powerful way to generate arbitrary 3D geometries by building up a light dosage distribution within a volume of light-sensitive material from many different illumination angles," electrical engineer and UC Berkeley assistant professor Hayden Taylor told SYFY WIRE via email. "Once we had made the initial demonstration of the technology, the analogy with 'The Replicator' suggested itself to a couple of the students working on the project, and it stuck!"

“Our new process is called Computed Axial Lithography (CAL), and prints entire 3D objects into light-sensitive materials all at once,” Taylor told Digital Trends. “The process involves rotating a container of light-sensitive material, while projecting into it a sequence of computed light intensity patterns that are synchronized with the rotation. Over time, a 3D pattern of light energy is delivered to the material by more than a thousand different projections. Where the energy delivered exceeds a critical threshold, the material undergoes a chemical reaction and the part is formed.”

Check out the Nature Video above to get a better understanding of the process, or read the paper, "Volumetric additive manufacturing via tomographic reconstruction," published via Science

This is impressive tech, no doubt, and will likely lead to a wide range of printable opportunities, including much larger objects.

"We expect (but have not yet shown experimentally) that it should be possible to print objects up to 0.5 meter diameter with features down to 0.1 to 0.2 mm at a rate of several liters per minute using a high-end 4K projector," Taylor told SYFY WIRE. "Of course there will no doubt be plenty of engineering challenges to be addressed on the way, but we have not yet identified an insurmountable limitation to scaling of the process."

So who knows, maybe they’ll be able to replicate that transporter we’ve all been hoping for.