Whether you have one on your desk or roll your eyes every time one is brought up, they certainly have been the hot toy of 2017, which raises the question: how might they be used to support learning rather than just providing future fodder for the plastic waste pile?
One group working to harness the current fascination is at Oak Ridge National Laboratory‘s (ORNL) Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, where they have created the world’s smallest fidget spinner using only a single drop of liquid. This diminutive toy measures only 100 microns across but researchers are hoping it generates big interest in young people. As Adam Rondinone, Senior Staff Scientist at ORNL, explained:
“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, which anybody can use as long as they submit a successful proposal.”
The spinner itself was built by a Nanoscribe 3D printer, which is normally used for non-toy activities such as the production of microfluidic and microchemical devices for scientific applications. The Nanoscribe machine is a laser lithography machine that uses the high intensity near infrared convergent laser to polymerize a UV curable photo resist. The laser is directed by the machine and can create extremely precise designs of any geometry on a microscopic scale.
The first step in creating the tiny spinner was to build the file in CAD. Once the file was ready, it was then cut into slices to allow it to be created layer by layer by the Nanoscribe machine. The actual building of the spinner took place in ORNL’s clean room, a space completely free of dust that could otherwise interfere with the construction of the final product. While dust may seem insignificant, when working at such a small scale, a room filled with dust would be the equivalent of attempting to undertake a 3D print while being pelted with driveway gravel.
When the team was ready to undertake the print, a single drop of the liquid material that would be used to form the fidget spinner was added onto a piece of silicone wafer and then loaded into the Nanoscribe machine. The machine’s laser converted the liquid to a solid, layer by layer until the entire spinner had solidified. Afterwards, the entire silicone wafer was removed and carefully rinsed of the excess liquid. As the object is smaller than the width of a human hair, manipulating it with your fingers is out of the question, so in order to play with it, it was placed on the bed of an optical microscope and compressed air was blown onto it. Rondinone is quick to point out that producing nano toys is not the ORNL’s primary activity:
“While the fidget spinner is fun, most of the time we’re using these instruments to do real science, where we’re making very small machines, microfluidic channels, sensors, photosensors and such, for actual scientific purposes. The Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences is a user facility which means everything we have and all of our staff are available to other scientists that want to come here and work.”
More whimsical creations can showcase complex capabilities, and the team at ORNL hopes that the lighthearted nature of creating the world’s smallest fidget spinner might help engage some serious interest from young people and educate them about the nature of the lab as they begin to take on their own research projects in the future.
Prepared on the basis of information from 3D Print.com