Although we still have a long way to go before we can put a superhero in a suit that can change size at the click of a button, scientists have found a way to shrink 3D objects to the nanoscale, patterning the objects with everything from metals to DNA.
The new technique can be used to create any shape or structure imaginable through a polymer scaffold that can be patterned with a laser. Materials can be attached to the scaffold and shrunk down, resulting in structures that are as small as 1/1,000th the volume of the original object.
“It’s a way of putting nearly any kind of material into a 3D pattern with nanoscale precision,” said Edward Boyden, senior author of the research and associate professor of biological engineering and of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. “There are all kinds of things you can do with this. Democratizing nanofabrication could open up frontiers we can’t yet imagine.”
Boyden is right, since current nanostructure creation techniques can’t be used to produce 3D structures, only 2D structures. In order to make 3D structures, layers have to be added on top of each other with current technology. This results in a lot of extra time and expense, and it’s a challenging process, to boot.
Boyden had to overcome some significant barriers to make the progress that he achieved with his students. It all started with a technique that he developed years ago that could provide high-res brain tissue images. The expansion microscopy process was reversed in order to take large-scale objects and shrink them to nanoscale using “implosion fabrication.”
“People have been trying to invent better equipment to make smaller nanomaterials for years, but we realized that if you just use existing systems and embed your materials in this gel, you can shrink them down to the nanoscale, without distorting the patterns,” said graduate student Samuel Rodriques.