A new nanotech breakthrough comes courtesy of a material you'd likely find in any nursery.
A team from MIT has figured out a way to quickly and inexpensively shrink objects to the nanoscale. It calls the process implosion fabrication, and it all starts with polyacrylate — the super-absorbent polymer typically found in baby diapers.
According to the MIT team's paper, published last Thursday in Science, the first step in the implosion fabrication process is adding a liquid solution to a piece of polyacrylate, causing it to swell.
Next, the team used lasers to bind fluorescein molecules to the polyacrylate in a pattern of their choosing. Those molecules acted as anchor points for whatever material the researchers wanted to shrink to the nanoscale.
"You attach the anchors where you want with light, and later you can attach whatever you want to the anchors," researcher Edward Boyden said in an MIT news release.
"It could be a quantum dot, it could be a piece of DNA, it could be a gold nanoparticle."
The researchers then dehydrated the polyacrylate scaffold using an acid. That caused the material attached to the polyacrylate to shrink in an even way to a thousandth of its original size.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of implosion fabrication is its accessibility — according to the MIT press release, many biology and materials science labs already have the necessary equipment to beginning shrinking objects to the nanoscale on their own.
As for what those researchers might shrink, the MIT team is already exploring potential uses for implosion fabrication, including in the fields of optics and robotics. But ultimately, they see no limit to the technique's possible applications.
"There are all kinds of things you can do with this," Boyden said.
"Democratizing nanofabrication could open up frontiers we can't yet imagine."