UT researchers receive grant to study nanoscale 3D printing

Sowmya Sridhar, General News Reporter

Researchers from UT, the University of Utah and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign received a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create a way to more quickly and efficiently print 3D nanostructures. The project began in October and is anticipated to end in 2026. 

Michael Cullinan, associate professor in mechanical engineering and one of the project’s leaders, said currently, a tradeoff exists between the speed and resolution, or the precision, with which one can print small structures. Cullinan said the team is developing a new process which uses optical metamasks and diffraction patterns to create 3D holograms at the nanoscale.

“Instead of scanning a laser or projecting 2D images and stacking those images, we’re projecting a 3D hologram onto a surface,” Cullinan said.

Cullinan said the researchers are working on making optical masks that work in a range closer to the surface than where diffraction can occur, allowing the creation of a nanoscale holographic image and further, a 3D structure. 

Chih-Hao Chang, an associate professor in mechanical engineering and another leader of the project, said the team is focusing on inverse design. 

“We have a certain desirable pattern that will give us the geometry we would like, and we will inversely design the structure to create that pattern,” Chang said.

Cullinan said one of the applications of this technology is creating more efficient water filtration systems. Wastewater contains lots of particles, from small bacteria to larger pieces of wastewater. Thus, wastewater traditionally goes through a set of filters that filter out smaller and smaller things. 

However, Cullinan said in wastewater treatment systems, as the hole gets smaller, the size limits water flow. He said the filtration membranes also have a distribution of holes sizes. 

“We want to make holes that are almost exactly the same size so we can filter out what we want, but also have as much water go through as possible,” Cullinan said. “We want to be able to print unique geometries to tailor what we’re filtering in the process.”