MIT Scientists invent Method to Shrink Objects to the Nanoscale

Behold, the technology of the future.

It sounds something coming straight out of Hollywood.

MIT researchers have successfully managed to shrink objects to the nanoscale.

And while it’s not the typical Ant-Man technology, the system can produce 3D structures one-thousandth the size of the originals.

According to reports, the researchers can also pattern the objects with a number of useful materials, including metals, quantum dots, and most importantly DNA.

“It’s a way of putting nearly any kind of material into a 3-D pattern with nanoscale precision,” explained Edward Boyden, an associate professor of biological engineering and of the brain and cognitive sciences at MIT.

According to professor Ed Boyden, many research labs are already stocked with the equipment required for this kind of fabrication. Image Credit: The Researchers / MIT.
According to professor Ed Boyden, many research labs are already stocked with the equipment required for this kind of fabrication. Image Credit: The Researchers / MIT.

The new technique allows scientists to create any shape and structure they can come up with by patterning a patterning a polymer scaffold with a laser.

After attaching other material to the scaffold, they are able to shrink its site, creating structure one-thousandth the size of the original.

This technology can be found to be useful in a number of different fields ranging from options to medicine as well as robotics.


The best part is, the technique is widely accessible for researchers who want to give it a go, as the technology uses materials and equipment that many biology and science labs already have.

The new technology is described in a scientific paper published in Science, authored by Edward Boyden a member of MIT’s Media Lab, McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and Adam Marblestone, a Media Lab research affiliate. The paper’s lead authors are graduate students, Daniel Oran, and Samuel Rodriques.

As explained by MIT, modern techniques that allow the creation of nanostructures are very limited in what can be accomplished with them. They present numerous limitations.

You can etch patterns onto a surface with light, producing 2-D nanostructures but doesn’t work for 3-D structures.

You can also make 3-D nanostructures by gradually adding layers on top of each other, but it’s a painstaking process.

And despite the fact that there are other methods that allow directly printing #d nanoscale objects, these are restricted to the use of specialized materials like polymers and plastics.

That’s why to overcome some of these many limitations, the group of scientists led by Boyden decided to turn to a technique developed a few years ago for high-resolution imaging of brain tissue.

The technique is referred to as expansion microscopy. With this technique, scientists embed tissue into a hydrogel and then expand it.

This allows scientists to observe elements with higher resolution with the use of regular microscopes.

The scientist went on and reversed this process and found that they could fabricate large-scale objects embedded into expanded hydrogels and then shrink them to a nanoscale.

And this is how MIT researchers invented the so-called “implosion fabrication” technique.

Scientists used an extremely absorbent material composed of polyacrylate, the stuff that’s typically found in diapers, as the scaffold for their nanofabrication process.

The scaffold is submerged in a solution that contains molecules of fluorescein, which attach to the scaffold when activated by a laser.

Then, using two-photon microscopy, scientists attached fluorescein molecules to specific locations inside the hydrogel. 

The fluorescein molecules act as anchors that bind to other types of molecules that researchers add later on.

“You attach the anchors where you want with light, and later you can attach whatever you want to the anchors,” Boyden explains.

“It could be a quantum dot, it could be a piece of DNA, it could be a gold nanoparticle.”

“It’s a bit like film photography — a latent image is formed by exposing a sensitive material in a gel to light. Then, you can develop that latent image into a real image by attaching another material, silver, afterward. In this way implosion fabrication can create all sorts of structures, including gradients, unconnected structures, and multimaterial patterns,” Oran says.

Once scientists have attached the desired molecules into the right places, they shrink everything using acid. The acid blocks out negative charges inside the polyacrylate gel, not allowing them to repeal each other, eventually causing the gel to contract.

With this technique, MIT researchers have successfully shrunk the objects 10-fold in each dimension.

“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,” Rodriques explained.

“There are all kinds of things you can do with this. Democratizing nanofabrication could open up frontiers we can’t yet imagine,” Boyden concluded.