MIT researchers Edward Boyden and colleagues have developed a way to shrink objects to the nanoscale.
The technology may sound like something from the Ant-Man or Honey, I Shrunk The Kids movies. However, the process, known as implosion fabrication, is essentially a 3D printing technique.
In a paper published in the journal Science on Thursday, the study researchers said that the process involves a material called polyacrylate, the super-absorbent polymer commonly found in baby diapers. The polyacrylate serves as the scaffold for the nanofabrication process.
The initial step in the implosion fabrication process is adding a liquid solution to polyacrylate, which causes the latter to swell.
The researchers used lasers to bind molecules of fluorescein, a compound used as a coloring agent, to the polyacrylate in a pattern they chose. The fluorescein molecules served as anchor points for the material the researchers wanted to shrink to the nanoscale level.
The polyacrylate scaffold was then dehydrated using an acid, causing the material attached to the polyacrylate to shrink evenly to a thousandth of its original size.
"We used hydrogels as scaffolds for volumetric deposition of materials at defined points in space," the researchers wrote in their study.
"We then optically patterned these scaffolds in three dimensions, attached one or more functional materials, and then shrank and dehydrated them in a controlled way to achieve nanoscale feature sizes in a solid substrate."
Implosion fabrication uses equipment that is already used in many biology and materials science laboratories, the researchers said. This means that the process is easily accessible to many researchers who want to try shrinking objects to the nanoscale.
The process holds potential application in the field of optics. Implosion fabrication may, for instance, allow the fabrication of smaller but better lenses, which can be used in microscopes, cellphone cameras, and endoscopes.
The technique may also have applications in the fields of medicine and robotics.
"Democratizing nanofabrication could open up frontiers we can't yet imagine," Boyden said.