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Think your apartment’s tiny? This micro-house is no wider than three human hairs

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Remember the brilliant scene in Zoolander where the lovably dimwitted Derek looks at a scale model of a proposed school and rages, “What is this? A center for ants? How can we be expected to teach children to learn how to read if they can’t even fit inside the building?” We’d hate to see Zoolander’s reaction to a new building created by researchers from the Femto-ST Institute in Besançon, France. Forget about being too small for children to fit inside; this scale model is too tiny for most kids to even see.

Created as a demonstration of a brand-new nanorobotic system, the appropriately-named “micro-house” measures just 300 x 300 micrometers, the measurement used to describe one one-millionth of a meter. To put that in perspective, a human hair is about 100 micrometers in diameter. The nanoscale house is tiny enough that it can sit on one end of an optical fiber.

“We chose a micro-house made with an optical fiber and a silica membrane because these are the materials we use in our institute for our research,” Jean-Yves Rauch, one of the researchers on the project, told Digital Trends. “Before the house, we assembled and installed at the end of cleaved optical fibers, other elements — such as silica mirrors, filters, or lithium niobate photonic crystals — but these are military applications and we are not allowed to show the images. So to represent the enormous potential of our µRobotex station, we chose to make a micro-house to demonstrate and popularize for the general public the potential of our vacuum assembly station with the robotic arm inside the chamber.”

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Making the house involved a precisely robotically controlled ion gas and special gas injection chamber, guided by a dual beam scanning electron microscope. Using this technique, it was even possible to detail some “tiles” on the roof of the residence. In all, it’s an amazing demo of what is possible to achieve with nanoscale manufacturing — provided you’ve got a steady-handed robot to offer a bit of assistance, that is!

“We are at the beginning of the vacuum micro assembly adventure and we already know some potential applications,” Rauch continued. “Applications are mainly in the field of sensors: magnetic field sensors, optically searchable virus or bacteria sensors, [and] micro and nano sensors in gases or liquids.”

However, Rauch added that there are plenty of other applications that we don’t know yet and that will only play out as technologies such as this become more mature.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the Journal of Vacuum Science & Technology.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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