Spring is a good time to stop and smell the roses, unless the roses are too small to be seen. Chemists at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts have grown roses that are smaller than a speck of dust.
“These kinds of structures form spontaneously. Even without doing anything, in two hours you already grow a beautiful garden of microstructures," said Wim Noorduin, a chemist at Harvard.
Developed in a lab with a few simple chemicals, scientists have grown tiny sculptures of roses, violets and tulips are grown. Each one is smaller than the width of a human hair and can only be seen with a special microscope.
“The first time we looked at these structures under the microscope, I was totally surprised. It was not one structure that we were growing, but it was a whole landscape," Noorduin said.
The flower-like shapes are actually crystals that build themselves one molecule at a time. The crystals grow on a glass surface submerged in water, with other chemicals similar to sand and chalk. Carbon dioxide from the air naturally dissolves in the water and sets off a chemical reaction that causes the crystals to form.
“We either grow structures that blossom open or that curl up in spiral shapes simply by controlling these balances between the chemicals," said Noorduin.
Tiny flowers formed on the back of a penny create a garden of nano-tulips on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
“Every structure is unique," said Noorduin.
These unique shapes bring a whole new meaning to "growing" a springtime garden.
Researchers can also add color to the flowers by mixing dyes into chemical solutions. The images of the flowers still have to be colorized using Adobe Photoshop because an electron microscope only takes photos in black and white.
Eventually, researchers hope to use this method to create microelectronics, sensors and new materials for optics.
Karin Heineman is the executive producer of Inside Science TV. She has produced over 600 video news segments on science, technology, engineering and math in the past 13 years for Inside Science TV and its predecessor, Discoveries and Breakthroughs Inside Science.
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Wim Noorduin, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences