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MIT invents method to reduce nanoscale objects

This month, MIT researchers announced that they invented a way to reduce nanoscale objects, smaller than what can be seen with a microscope, using a laser. That means they can take any simple structure and reduce it to a 1,000 of its original size.

The miniaturization technology, called "implosion fabrication", could be applied to everything from the development of smaller microscopes and cell phone lenses to the creation of small robots that improve everyday life.

"People have been trying to invent better equipment to make smaller nanomaterials for years," said neurotechnology professor Edward Boyden, the lead researcher, in a statement. "There are all kinds of things you can do with this."

It's a long way from "Honey I Shrunk the Kids", but the new method has many great cool uses. For example, scientists are exploring ways to add small robotic particles to anti-cancer drugs that only cancer cells can search for. And forget the microchips: MIT says that this technology could be used to develop even smaller "nanochip" electronic devices.

The best part? MIT's state-of-the-art technique simply requires a laser and an absorbent gel (commonly used in baby diapers), materials that most biology and engineering labs already have.

This is how it works: with a laser, the researchers create a structure with absorbent gel, similar to writing with a ballpoint pen in 3D. Then, they can join any material (metal, DNA or small particles of "quantum dots") to the structure. Finally, they shrink the structure to a tiny size.

"It's a bit like film photography," said graduate researcher Daniel Oran. "A latent image is formed by exposing a sensitive material in a gel to light, then it can develop that latent image in a real image by joining another material, silver, later".

MIT engineers devised a way to create nanoscale objects in 3-D by modeling a larger structure with a laser and then reducing it. This image shows a complex structure before shrinking.

In fact, Oran is a trained photographer, and the project started in 2014 when he and the graduate student Samuel Rodriques, who has experience in physics, decided to collaborate.

The team discovered the method by reversing a common technique, originally developed by Boyden to expand images of brain tissue. Called "expansion microscopy," that process involves injecting a material into a gel and then making it larger and, therefore, easier to see.

By doing the opposite, the researchers were able to make nano-sized objects. Previously, similar laser techniques could only do two-dimensional structures, and other methods to reduce 3D objects were much slower and more difficult to perform in most laboratories.

"Normally, nanotechnology uses very expensive technology and requires sterile rooms (…) but we did not have to do it because of the scaffolding we use to protect the materials," said Rodriques.

The researchers say that this technology could be easily accessible in the future; It is even something that you could use at home or at school because all the materials are not toxic.

"It is quite difficult to imagine at this time all the things we can do with this," said Rodriques.

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