Shoes, robots, houses and prosthetic hands, 3D printing has already gone well beyond the bounds of model making, and biotechnology is another of the new frontiers where the technology is set to make a huge impact. Nanoscribe GmbH, a spin-off of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), is pushing the boundaries of this space with the release of what's claimed to be the world’s fastest and highest resolution commercially available 3D printer of micro- and nanostructures – the Photonic Professional GT.

The Photonic Professional GT uses a 3D laser lithography system developed by Nanoscribe that can handle data transfer rates of more than 5 terabits per second. The system achieves its high-speed through the use of galvo technology – a series of rotating mirrors that deflect laser light for quick and precise focus. Similar technology is used in laser light shows and in the scanning units of CD and DVD drives.

Using this system, tiny 3D objects are created through the use of two-photon polymerization, where ultra-short laser pulses are trained on photosensitive material, polymerizing it. Once areas of the photosensitive base-material are exposed, the material is developed and unwanted material washed out, leaving self-supporting micro- and nanostructures.

According to Nanoscribe, the scanning field is limited physically to "a few 100 µm" (µm = micrometer = one-thousandth of a millimeter). These scanning fields can then be precisely stitched together, like floor tiles, to extend the printing area.

While the technology is targeted at biotech applications, such as creating scaffolds for cell growth studies, Nanoscribe has chosen a rather more novel way to demonstrate the speed and precision of the technology – the video below shows the real-time printing of a Hellcat spaceship from the Wing Commander Saga that measures just 125µm x 81µm x 26.8µm (l x w x h) ... that's about as long as the width of a human hair. The overall printing time was less than one minute.

The Photonic Professional GT was announced at the Photonics West international fair in San Francisco last month.

Sources: Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Nanoscribe