WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Being able to create increasingly small nanoscale structures will help us create more advanced nanobots and nanomachines in the future.
Recently we’ve seen a spate of new ways to build houses, whether they’re 3D printed, or built using autonomous drones, robots and vehicles, but they’ve all had one thing in common, they’re house sized. Now a team of scientists in France have also built a house, one that pushes the frontiers of house building to its state of the art limits. But there’s a big difference between this house and the others, and I do mean big, because this one is nano-scopic. In fact it’s so small it sits on the cleaved end of a strand of fibre optic cable.
The diminutive home was built by a team from the Femto-ST Institute in using their new “μRobotex nanofactory system.” That setup utilizes a robotically-controlled ion gun and a gas injection system, operating within a large vacuum chamber, to assemble microstructures on the tips of optical fibers with extreme accuracy.
Guided by a dual beam scanning electron microscope, two engineers working at multiple computers used μRobotex to build the silica-membrane house on an area measuring just 300 by 300 micrometers (a micrometer, or micron, is one one-millionth of a meter).
A focused ion beam was used to cut or score a flat sheet of the membrane which was then folded to form the basic structure, with the gas injection system subsequently being utilized to weld its joined edges together. A lower-powered ion beam, working along with the gas injection system, was then used to sputter the “tiles” (the two stripes in the photo) onto the roof.
And while there may not be much call for microhouses in the grand scheme of things, μRobotex could also be used for more practical applications. It could, for instance, assemble sensing elements on the tips of optical fibers as thin as a human hair, which could then be inserted into blood vessels to detect viral molecules.
Until now, using non-robotized systems, such fine work has reportedly not been possible. In fact, as more aspects of μRobotex become automated, the scientists are ultimately hoping to build even smaller structures on the ends of carbon nanotubes measuring just 20 to 100 nanometers in diameter (a nanometer is one one-billionth of a meter), and that will help us make even smaller nanobots and nanomachines, for example, that will swim round our bloodstreams hunting out and killing diseases like cancer in our bodies.
“For the first time we were able to realize patterning and assembly with less than 2 nanometers of accuracy, which is a very important result for the robotics and optical community,” says Jean-Yves Rauch, author of a paper on the research.
That paper was recently published in the Journal of Vacuum Science & Technology A.