Scientists can now manufacture their own molecules

6th April 2016
Source: ETH Zurich
Posted By : Jordan Mulcare
Scientists can now manufacture their own molecules

Scientists at ETH Zurich and IBM Research Zurich have developed a technique that enables for the first time the manufacture of complexly structured tiny objects joining together microspheres. The objects have a size of just a few micrometres and are produced in a modular fashion, making it possible to program their design in such a way that each component exhibits different physical properties.

After fabrication, it is also very simple to bring the micro-objects into solution. This makes the new technique substantially different from micro 3D printing technology. With most of today's micro 3D printing technologies, objects can only be manufactured if they consist of a single material, have a uniform structure and are attached to a surface during production.

To prepare the micro-objects, the ETH and IBM researchers use tiny spheres made from a polymer or silica as their building blocks, each with a diameter of approximately one micrometre and different physical properties. The scientists are able to control the particles and arrange them in the geometry and sequence they like.

The structures that are formed occupy an interesting niche in the size scale: they are much larger than your typical chemical or biochemical molecules, but much smaller than typical objects in the macroscopic world. "Depending on the perspective, it's possible to speak of giant molecules or micro-objects," says Lucio Isa, Professor for Interfaces, Soft matter and Assembly, ETH Zurich. He headed the research project together with Heiko Wolf, a scientist, IBM Research. "So far, no scientist has succeeded in fully controlling the sequence of individual components when producing artificial molecules on the micro scale," says Isa.

With the new method, it is possible to manufacture micro-objects with precisely defined magnetic, non-magnetic and differently charged areas. Currently, the scientists can create small rods of varying lengths and composition, tiny triangles and basic 3D objects. But the researchers are keen to develop the technique further. As possible future applications, they are considering self-propelled micro-carriers that move in an external electric field thanks to their sophisticated geometry and material composition.

Other possibilities include micro-mixers for lab-on-a-chip applications or, in the distant future, even micro-robots for biomedical applications which can grab, transport and release other specific micro-objects. Additionally, the researchers could design their artificial molecules so that they interact with each other and assemble together independently into larger 'superstructures'. This would be for instance relevant for photonics (light-based signal processing). "Customised micro-structures are required in photonics. These could one day be manufactured with our components," says Isa.

To manufacture a large number of identical micro-objects at the same time, the scientists use polymer templates with indentations engraved in the form of the object they want to produce. The researchers developed a method that allows them to deposit one tiny sphere at a time during each step of the procedure. They can build up larger objects sequentially, choosing the type of sphere for each step. At the end, they connect the tiny spheres together by briefly heating them.

In the current development phase, the tiny spheres are firmly connected to one another, but in the future, the researchers would like to try to connect them with 'soft bonds'. This would make it possible to use the objects as large-scale models for chemical and biochemical compounds, for instance to study protein folding on an experimental level. The researchers would also like to attempt to assemble the objects with tiny spheres made from materials other than plastic or silica. "In principle, our method can be adapted to any material, even metals," says Isa.


You must be logged in to comment

Write a comment

No comments




Sign up to view our publications

Sign up

Sign up to view our downloads

Sign up

PPMA Show 2017
26th September 2017
United Kingdom NEC, Birmingham
World’s top 50 innovators from the industries of the future
27th September 2017
United Kingdom London
New Scientist Live 2017
28th September 2017
United Kingdom Excel, London
Kiosk Summit 2017
28th September 2017
United Kingdom London
act! 2017
28th September 2017
Germany NHOW Berlin