A project called FEMTOPRINT (femtosecond laser printer for glass microsystems with nanoscale features) will start this month having received €2.5m in EU funding. Co-ordinated by the Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE) in the Netherlands, the FEMTOPRINT partners say that their "Femtoprinter" is the answer users need to form 3D patterns in glass at low cost.

Microsystems, which can contain both mechanical and electrical features, are found in an ever increasing number of places. One well known and well researched microsystem is a lab-on-a-chip. Another example is the accelerometers that are incorporated into laptops. Such devices detect immediately when a laptop is falling and ensure that the hard disk is prepared for a shock, preventing loss of data.

When it comes to manufacturing microsystems, there are significant factors that prevent them from being fabricated in low volume and in standard working environments. The main problem is cost. Many of today's microsystems need to be manufactured in a cleanroom.

FEMTOPRINT project leader Yves Bellouard of TUE's Department of Mechanical Engineering believes that the sluggish development of microsystems can be attributed to these problems. He points out that only larger enterprises have the resources needed to take microsystems out of the laboratory and into the real world.

Bellouard also notes that an investment is considered lucrative only when the market actually needs substantial volumes of these microsystems. The biggest losers are the small, innovative companies that are working on specialist applications.

And this is where FEMTOPRINT enters the picture: the femtoprinter will use a femtosecond laser to create 3D patterns within the glass. This means that there is no contact with the air and no cleanroom is needed. The 3D pattern can be etched in one step compared to traditional methods that require patterns to be created layer by layer.

An important goal of FEMTOPRINT is to reduce the required femtosecond laser to the size of a showbox. The French laser manufacturer Amplitude Systèmes will be responsible for this part of the project. Bellouard's group will focus mainly on the effects laser light has on fused silica.

FEMTOPRINT, which brings together French, German, Dutch, Swiss and UK experts, also seeks to bring the femtoprinter laser to the market with the creation of a consortium spin-off.

The FEMTOPRINT project is backed by the "Nanosciences, nanotechnologies, materials and new production technologies" theme of the EU Seventh Framework Programme