If you have a child of a certain age, you’ve heard of fidget spinners. These are disks with three lobes that spin and… that’s it. Some light up, some are decorated with pop culture logos, and some have only two lobes instead of three, but one thing they all share is that they’re handheld.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) Center for Nanophase Material Sciences (CNMS) took on a singular challenge: construct a fidget spinner the width of a human hair. They intended to demonstrate the laboratory’s capabilities and the expertise available to scientists around the world. And as a result, they created a fidget spinner only 100 microns wide—or roughly one-tenth of a millimeter.
“We were looking for an idea that could inspire young people who are interested in science and also provide a means to reach college and graduate school students who are the next generation of scientists,” said ORNL’s Adam Rondinone, senior staff scientist at CNMS.
The process is similar to ORNL’s well-known large-scale 3D printing technologies, but operates at a microscopic level, using a laser to convert a liquid to a solid, then shaving off microscopic pieces to construct a working miniature device. This technology allows the team to build complex designs and create microscopic devices with moving parts; the ability to construct much smaller but fully functional devices would help manufacturers in areas from computer science to medicine and more. The device is called Nanoscribe, a type of 3D printer that works with light instead of physical extrusion, which researchers typically use to create microfluidic and micromechanical devices for scientific applications.
Research continues on applications for this technology at CNMS, which engages more than 650 researchers every year who conduct experiments on nanomaterials synthesis, fabrication, imaging, modeling and simulation. CNMS is a user facility that allows visitors from academia, the private sector and other research institutes to make use of its capabilities. It is managed by UT-Battelle for DOE’s Office of Science. CNMS is a gateway for the nanoscience community to benefit from ORNL’s neutron sources and computational resources, which are accessible based on peer-reviewed proposals and offered at no cost to users who intend to publish their results.
Oak Ridge is also engaging young people in STEM education, with outreach programs that include a Traveling Science Fair and bus tours of the laboratory facilities. Using the laboratory’s technology to create a fun, popular toy—at a very reduced size—is a way to show young people what science can do.
“We felt like it would be an interesting demonstration for younger people who may not know that the federal government maintains these user facilities around the country,” said Rondinone.
Read the ORNL press release here.