Dutch researchers have 3D printed the world's smallest boat.
Named for a popular (and tricky) 3D-printing test, "3DBenchy" measures in at just 30 micrometers, or about one-third of the thickness of a human hair.
The scientists created the boat in a bid to enrich their research on microswimmers, or small particles that move in liquid.
Smaller things are simply better—kittens, puppies, miniature horses, miniature golf, you name it. And it looks like the physicists at Leiden University in the Netherlands agree, as they've created another marvelous mini wonder: the world's smallest boat, courtesy of one very impressive 3D printer.
⚓️ You like badass boats (no matter how small). So do we. Let's nerd out over them together.
In their new paper, published in the journal Soft Matter, the Dutch researchers say they built the small boat to better study synthetic microswimmers, or microscopic particles that move around in fluids, such as water. Biological examples of microswimmers include sperm and flagellated bacteria, like E. coli.
"We want to understand how shape affects the motion and interactions of microswimmers," Daniela Kraft, an associate professor in soft matter physics at Leiden and one of the lead researchers, tells Popular Mechanics. "By creating synthetic microswimmers, we can single out the function that shape has."
"Biological microswimmers have other active mechanisms [like] to change motion direction, our synthetic ones really just swim. In the paper, we describe a method how we can functionalize any 3D printed object in such a way that they can swim."
From prow to stern, the baby boat measures in at just 30 microns, which is about one-third of the thickness of a strand of human hair. In theory, then, the little tug could travel along one of your locks—and you probably wouldn't even notice. It's so minuscule, in fact, that you can't even see this thing with the naked eye, Kraft says.
Kraft and her team decided to print a tugboat, rather than, say, a truck or some other random object because the computer-aided drafting file for the ship is a common test used in 3D printing, albeit usually at a much larger scale.
Known as "3DBenchy," the boat serves as a sort of benchmark to help determine the capabilities of a given printer, based on its ability to complete various "difficult-to-print features," Kraft says. One example is the inside of the cockpit, which features some unique geometries that are hard to print in general, let alone at this miniature scale.
This work proved the group's "Nanoscribe Photonic Professional" printer can fabricate even the tiniest 3D-printed objects. But it's not the kind of commercial 3D printer you'll be able to snag off of Amazon. Instead, it uses a laser, focused inside of a water droplet, to write the impossibly small structures, Kraft says.
On the official website for the Nanoscribe printer, marketing materials refer to it as the world's "highest resolution 3D printer," claiming the machine has helped teams complete at least 850 research projects in over 30 countries. The price isn't even listed—you have to contact the sales team for an offer—so you know this thing must be expensive.
Unfortunately, since the boat is too small to see, Kraft and her colleagues won't be setting out 3DBenchy on their desks as a quirky memento. However, they've used a regular old 3D printer to create gifts for members of the lab that leave, always in a theme that reflects their research interests.
If you ever visit Kraft's lab, though, you might spot a tiny Eiffel Tower that's just 2 millimeters in length. It's a standard design from the Nanoscribe machine that you can see, so it's a great way to quickly demo just how small the team can print.
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