In 2011, German designer Markus Kayser went out into the Sahara desert with his Solar Sinter, a 3D printing machine that he designed to help transform sunlight and sand into glass objects. Staging a two-week trial process near Siwa, Egypt, Kayser set out to establish solar sintering as a modern form of desert manufacturing.
Shown at the 2011 Royal College of Art exhibition, Kayser’s Solar Sinter harnesses solar power to enable computer-driven 3D design. The Solar Sinter is composed of seven parts: a photovoltaic solar panel, a focal point, a sun tracking sensor, a Fresnel lens, a control board of electronics, one battery and a silver tent which Kayser calls his “office”. The Sintering process begins with the Fresnel lens being oriented to focus on sunlight with the help of the sun sensor, generating temperatures hot enough to melt sand. Directly under the Fresnel lens is a box of sand, which hosts a proto-design studio where objects are created with the focal point as the sand melts. Solar-powered motors help orient the box on an XY grid to follow a computer-simulated path, helping carry out the design of objects.
Prior to his expedition to the Sahara, Kayser had tested out a manual version of the Solar Sinter in the Moroccan desert. Motivated by his initial successes, he conducted extensive research outside his direct sphere of knowledge (focusing on physics) in order to understand the process of how to turn sand into glass. Living in London, he knew the notoriously overcast conditions wouldn’t allow for solar sintering to occur. After haggling and even bribing border patrol officers questioning why on earth an art student from the UK would be entering the country with such a massive contraption the structure, Kayser was faced with more issues upon arrival. Once out in the desert, temperatures surpassed 104°F, rendering his device helpless and overheating. So Kayser improvised and created a cooling fan out of a soup can, allowing the rest of the experimental trial to continue.
The Solar Sinter, according to Kayser, creates the potential for large-scale desert manufacturing, in which its primary natural resources (sun and sand) are leveraged in a renewable industrial process. One of Kayser’s main concerns he attempts to highlight is the overexploitation of natural resources that has led to global shortages in raw materials. By utilizing an entirely renewable energy source, Kayser proves the viability of solar-powered manufacturing ventures while highlighting the ability to rely on a cleaner form of energy production.
The Solar Sinter intends to extend the relationship between the machine and the surrounding community and manufacturing processes. With further research into this process, Kayser’s Solar Sinter has the potential to culminate as a form of desert architecture, where sand could be melted into walls to form buildings. While it is important to keep in mind that many ancient societies have leveraged the tools of sand and sun for the creation of their civilizations (such as Pueblo’s adobe cities), no method has been digitized or automated: that’s why the Solar Sinter has the potential to bring with it a new age and revival of natural infrastructure.
Photo by Courtenay Crane