Harvard University postdoctoral research
fellow Wim Noorduin creates gorgeous microscopic worlds by
combining barium carbonate and sodium silicate in a beaker and then
manipulating the chemical and atmospheric conditions to
get crystalline structures that look precisely the way he wants them
The primary way in
which the structures take shape, Noorduin told Crave, has to do with the levels of chemicals in the
water, which influence "if structures either grow away from one other to
form stems, vases, and corals, or grow towards one other and curl up in all
kinds of spiraling shapes."
Noorduin's sensitive structures can be further controlled by manipulating factors such as the
temperature or acidity of the water as they grow. "Just taking off the lid
of the beaker (which allows more CO2to enter it), adding a drop of acid, or mixing
in some kitchen salt, can already give completely different shapes," he told Crave. "We can apply these modulations continuously while the structures
are growing so that you can, for instance, make precise patterns."
To create structures with different
components, Noorduin says he first grows a structure, like a
stem, and then places it in a new solution to get a different structure --
like petals -- to attach to it. "This new solution can contain completely
different chemical conditions such that we can radically change the shape and
at the same time control where we grow the new structure," he told Crave. "As
a result we can, for instance, first grow a vase and subsequently place a stem
inside this vase and open it into a flower so that you make a micro
When the super-small
structures are first created, they are made with colorless materials, according
to Noorduin. "We can, however, make colored structures by adding dye
molecules to the reaction solution that get built into the structure while they
grow," he explained. By switching solutions several times, he can dye different
parts of the structure different colors -- red petals on a green stem, for
When creating the images of
his microarchitecture, Noorduin uses electron microscopy, which only produces
black and white images. To get the images looking like the actual structures,
he colors them after they are taken, mimicking the dyeing process that happens in
the crystals at the nanoscale.
"For three years now, I've been looking at these very strange white stripes on plates
that are maybe only an inch long or so," Noorduin told The Creators Project, which made a documentary about his work. "And every time I'm amazed that it's a
complete sort of coral reef that you're diving into as soon as you look under
the microscope," he said. "I notice quite often that I
simply forget to make photos because I just want to look further (at) the samples and discover new structures and then get lost. These small samples
really contain their own world."
Fortunately for us, he does remember to snap a photo every now and then!
The Creators Project also spoke to Harvard chemistry professor Joanna Aizenberg, in whose group Noorduin works. Of Noorduin's work she said, "Basic science is critical. We do need to understand how and why things assemble. How and why the emergence of form leads to certain structures. Without this basic understanding, we won't be ever able to professionally design the structures, materials, and complex systems that we can use in the future devices."
About the reaction to his work, Noorduin told The Creators Project: "The
feedback is very broad. Of course, there are many scientists that find this
work interesting, but also just people from all over the world who are
intrigued by the shapes; especially when you consider that these images were
for about three years only on my computer, and then suddenly in one day they
are all over the Internet -- that is very strange to me."