World's smallest boat is thinner than a human hair
Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands have created what’s probably the world’s smallest boat. Measuring just 30 microns long, the tiny model was 3D printed as part of a project investigating how to make synthetic “microswimmers” in complex shapes.
Snapped using a scanning electron microscope, the boat is exceptionally detailed, complete with an open cabin, a chimney, and even little portholes. It’s particularly impressive given that the whole model is just one third the thickness of a human hair, meaning it’s even smaller than the tiny sculptures created by artist Jonty Hurwitz back in 2014.
The model itself is known as 3DBenchy, and it’s often used as a test run for 3D printers to see how well they can handle all the little intricacies. Since this project is using an unconventional method of 3D printing, it was important to check that it could achieve this level of detail.
The microboat was 3D printed, but not with the usual extrusion method you’d use to print a plastic object at the macro scale. It’s made using what’s known as two-photon polymerization – essentially, a laser “carves” complex shapes and patterns into a material designed to react to the light.
But it wasn’t just a microscopic art project. The team was experimenting with creating microswimmers, tiny objects that can propel themselves through water or other fluids using chemical reactions. Normally they’re simple spheres, so the Leiden researchers wanted to investigate if more complicated shapes could be made.
Along with the 3DBenchy boat, the team made microswimmers in spirals, helices, spiky balls and groups of three spheres. One face of the objects is coated in platinum, which reacts with the surrounding medium by producing bubbles, propelling the tiny craft forwards.
Theoretically, the little boat could be made to move in this way, but it wouldn’t be the most efficient shape – as mentioned, it was more to test how well the laser could create detail. The helix and spiral shapes performed much better, with one end coated to propel them in a corkscrew motion.
The research was published in the journal Soft Matter.
Source: Leiden University