Student Markus Kayser has created what could well be the first step on the road to the Replicators seen in the Stargate universe: a machine which turns sun and sand into usable, custom-made physical objects.
Kayser's creation is the Solar Sinter, an automated computer-controlled 3D printing machine that draws its power from the sun and uses common or garden - or, more accurately, desert - sand as its building material. Based on a technique known as selective laser sintering - a 3D printing method that creates objects from a powdered material by selectively fusing it with intense heat - it can create almost any shape imaginable.
Unlike traditional SLS printers - or, indeed, any other form of 3D printer - Kayser's creation is entirely powered by the sun. Solar panels convert the sun's rays into electricity to power the integrated computer-driven control system, while a series of lenses focus them into a beam capable of melting the sand into glass.
"My first manually-operated solar-sintering machine was tested in February 2011 in the Moroccan desert with encouraging results that led to the development of the current larger and fully-automated computer driven version - the Solar Sinter," explains Kayser on his project page.
"The Solar-Sinter was completed in mid-May and later that month I took this experimental machine to the Sahara desert near Siwa, Egypt, for a two week testing period. The machine and the results of these first experiments represent the initial significant steps towards what I envisage as a new solar-powered production tool of great potential."
Kayser's creation has enormous potential to be a truly disruptive technology. Backed by something like Ponoko's distributed manufacturing infrastructure, it would allow those in many developing nations to use their abundant resources - sun and sand - to create the objects they truly need in a way which has minimal impact on the environment.
The Solar Sinter isn't Kayser's first sun-powered manufacturing tool. Back in 2010 he tested a predecessor known as the Sun-Cutter, which used focused beams of sunlight to cut through thin plywood. "It produced components with an aesthetic quality that was a curious hybrid of machine-made and 'nature craft,'" he remembers, "due to the crudeness of its mechanism and cutting beam optics alongside variations in solar intensity due to weather fluctuations."
The objects created by the Solar-Sinter are, admittedly, basic: simple glass tools and containers. As a starting point, however, Kayser's creation is nothing short of remarkable.
If you're curious how the Solar Sinter could possibly work, Kayser has provided an illuminating - pun entirely intended - video demonstrating its use.