Designer Markus Kayser employs a solar-powered 3-D printer to turn desert sand into glistening glass objects. Join us for a discussion on sustainable design and tomorrow’s potential production sites
Recently in London, at the Royal College of Art’s annual exhibition, the Solar Sinter caught the collective eye of visiting art fans and scholars alike: Markus Kayser’s final year exhibit introduced the world to an entirely solar-powered 3-D printer for translucent design objects fashioned from molten desert sand. A graduate of the renowned art college’s Design Products course, the London-based designer created the Solar Sinter to remind us of the potential of natural energy sources and renewable resources – and, most of all, to encourage us to expand our horizon and pursue our dreams.
In our interview Markus reveals how the Solar Sinter encourages new developments and ideas:
What inspired you to combine design with a renewable energy source?
In today‘s world, design has moved far beyond applying pretty shapes to given technologies. Nowadays, the real question concerns the actual mode of production. With this in mind, I wanted to try something entirely new. In order to manufacture a product, you invariably need raw materials and a source of energy. As both are freely available in the desert, I decided that this was the right place to conduct my experiments.
So, how does the Solar Sinter work?
With this particular project I wanted to explore and reveal the desert’s potential as a manufacturing location. Dominated by two elements – sun and sand – it not only offers an enormous source of untapped energy, but also a near endless supply of silica in the guise of quartz sand. In a way, my previous project, the Sun Cutter (a solar-powered laser cutter), had paved the way for this idea – it reminded me that if you heat siliceous sand to boiling point, it invariably turns to glass.
Over the last few years, sintering – i. e. the reshaping of metals, resins or plastic powder by means of targeted heat application – has become the foremost prototyping technique. Otherwise known as 3-D printing or selective laser sintering, the resulting 3-D printer uses laser technology to turn computer-generated 3-D designs into extraordinarily precise three-dimensional objects. In my case, I simply swapped the laser for sunny rays – and the resin for run-of-the-mill sand. This simple premise served as the basis for an entirely new, solar-powered machine and production process that exploits a near-perpetual resource, i. e. sand.
How long does it take to transform a pile of sand into the final product?
During our desert-based experiments it took the Solar Sinter four-and-a-half hours to manufacture a glass bowl. The head moves at about 1 millimetre per second to allow the sand to melt. This speed is in line with regular 3-D printers. And to give you an idea of the machine’s dimensions: Including solar cells, the Solar Sinter measures approx. 2 x 2 metres.
How much time did you spend in the desert? Did you have any formative experiences?
All in all, I spent around three weeks in the desert. Retrieving the first object from the sand box was an incredible experience – all those months of work and all those travels had finally paid off!
What are your future plans for the Solar Sinter?
I am planning to adapt and re-engineer the machine as soon as possible to incorporate all the findings and insights from our desert experiments. Once all revisions are in place, I will take the improved prototype back to the desert to assess the improvement in manufacturing quality. In addition, I am also planning to produce architectural building materials, e. g. translucent bricks or more complex construction elements for a new generation of desert architecture. Right now, I am in the process of finding backers for this next step of product development.
Good luck! Are there any other desert technologies on the horizon? Anything else you would like to realise?
While I can picture quite a few things, this isn‘t about my own personal dream, but about encouraging others to let their mind roam and re-evaluate their perspective – so I prefer not to offer a prefab solution. In a way, I want people out there to reveal the desert’s potential to me. And you can already find quite a few pointers in discussions on internet forums.
Are there any other techniques you would like to explore in future production experiments?
I think that the sun will play a key role in the future of production. A super-abundant energy source, it is currently in the spotlight as a promising source of electrical energy. At the same time, the sun could also serve as a much more direct and far more efficient outlet – as my first Solar Sinter experiment proves.
What else do you care about, besides your design projects?
Right now, my life and profession are inextricably linked – I can’t really separate the two. I always keep my eyes open for new inspirations and design solutions. I am simply fascinated by anything I haven’t encountered before! In a way, that is how I view the job of a designer: Every project is a new challenge and requires new insights and knowledge.
Thank you very much for your time!
Solar Sinter has been nominated for the Royal College of Art’s prestigious Sustain Award and will be on display at the London Design Festival from September 22nd to October 5th, 2011:
Markus Kayser’s website:
Clip of the Solar Sinter experiment in the desert: