Magdalen College, part of the University of Oxford, has been innovating through science since its inception on 1458. 532 years later, Magdalen College along with Prudential and Oxford, built the Oxford Science Park. Here 100 brilliant minds from different backgrounds and nationalities keep the innovation going every day. Deep in the bowels of the park resides Sharp's research and development facility, working on their latest innovations.
Today they announced a breakthrough 3D printing device. They have built a machine that can print a complete circuit one molecule at a time. Their Molecular Beam Epitaxy (MBE), deposits the proper atoms layer by layer to build each and every component from diodes to solar cells.
In a week time, the researchers turn the inside of the MBE capsule to an almost perfect vacuum, 1 billionth of the Earth atmosphere. Vacuum pumps to the heavy lifting in this case. However, some impurities are literally floating around on the inside. To remove all debris the team pumps in liquid nitrogen for use in a rather clever way. Jon Heffernan, Director of Advanced Optical Devices at Sharp Laboratories of Europe, explained, "[Liquid nitrogen] sucks material, particularly impurities, out of the chamber. They land on this cold surface and, a bit like sticking your tongue to an ice lolly, they won’t come off. That creates the really high vacuum we need for the MBE to work.”
To begin the built, the team inserts a base wafer (substrate) inside the chamber. This acts as control piece for the molecular growth. The team positions the wafer to the proper position using strong magnetic elements from outside of the MBE. From here a crystal is grown on top of the substrate. Director of Business Development at Shape Laboratories of Europe said, "whatever your substrate is, the crystal structure will be what the first atom mimics. Whatever you layer on top follows its orientation.”
Chemicals (sapphire, silicon, gallium, and indium) in canisters that populate the outside of the MBE are heated and exposed to the chamber and allowed to evaporate through shutters in a controlled and precise order. Due to the conditions inside the chamber, all deposits are placed exactly on top of the wafer. In other words, spraying on the molecules layer by layer in the targeted locations. The result, a set of LEDs are grown in less than a half a day.
Sharp researchers stated that with enough MBEs built to larger scales could produce millions of components on a commercial scale every six hours. A yield can be collected four times a day. Component manufacturers just how started listening.
No word on how much waste this process produces. Liquid nitrogen costs an inexpensive 6 cents (0.04 Euro) per quart (liter), for those who want to know. The team did not divulge if more complex components, like microprocessors, could be manufactured in the same way.
The Oxford Science Park sounds like what Argonne National Laboratoy's Energy Sciences Building wants to be for alternative energy.